STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Justin King has had a little extra spring in his step this week in practice.
Top-ranked Ohio State is coming to Happy Valley.
"Obviously, everyone says you have to remain the same, that it's just another team," the Penn State cornerback said yesterday. "But of course, we'll approach it with more intensity, and be ready to play. You only get the No. 1 team so many times."
King was a 2-year-old the only other time a No. 1 team came to Beaver Stadium, when Notre Dame defeated Penn State, 34-23 on Nov. 18, 1989.
Fans of No. 24 Penn State (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) are eager to see a different outcome Saturday night.
"Beat Ohio State" T-shirts have popped up in storefronts. Students anxious for good seats have already set up camp at "Paternoville," the tent city that sprouts up outside Beaver Stadium the week of big games.
Some players are remarking that even 80-year-old coach Joe Paterno has been a little more animated than usual getting ready for Ohio State (8-0, 4-0).
"If you can't get excited about that, then I think maybe you get out of it," said Paterno, in his 42nd season as head coach. "It's a big game for where we're going to go with this football team."
A win over the Buckeyes and Penn State will likely rocket up the polls and strengthen their credentials for a New Year's Day bowl.
But it's going to be far from easy.
Ohio State boasts the nation's stingiest defense (7.8 points and 208.5 yards per game) and is second against the run (62.3 yards) and pass (146.1 yards).
It has been more than enough support for the offense (34.2 points), which got a career-high 221 yards from tailback Chris Wells in last week's 24-17 win over Michigan State.
No wonder Ohio State has won a school-record 26 straight regular-season games.
Their last defeat? A 17-10 loss to Penn State on Oct. 8, 2005 - the last time the Buckeyes came to Beaver Stadium.
"Anytime you lose to a team, you want to redeem yourself. Penn State and Ohio State the last couple years have developed a little bit of a rivalry," Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "This year, there's going to be a lot of hype around the game. It's going to be a very intense environment."
Complicating matters this time around for Paterno is a growing injury list. Starting fullback Matt Hahn, a solid all-around senior, suffered a season-ending knee injury last week in the 36-31 win over Indiana and may prove difficult to replace.
Guard Mike Lucian, who has started five games this year, will likely sit out a second straight game after suffering a concussion, Paterno said.
Also, tailback Austin Scott remains suspended after being charged earlier this month with the rape of a student at his on-campus apartment.
On defense, starting defensive tackle Jared Odrick is out for the year after breaking his right ankle during the Indiana game. That injury came a week after backup defensive end Jerome Hayes suffered a season-ending injury to his knee.
The Nittany Lions, who have an emerging star in defensive end Maurice Evans (10.5 sacks), should have the line depth to withstand those setbacks.
"It has been a tough year for us physically, plus a couple of distractions," Paterno said.
The solid defense wants to get back to its stingy ways after giving up 31 points to the Hoosiers.
"That was tough to swallow. It wasn't one of our best wins," linebacker Dan Connor said. "But it was a win and gives us a chance to see where we need to improve in different aspects of the game."
With big-game hype having already descended on Happy Valley, Paterno will try to keep his team as grounded as possible in practice as they prepare for what is expected to be a raucous atmosphere Saturday night.
"You try to practice the same way, get in a routine," said Paterno, whose 369 career wins are just one behind Florida State's Bobby Bowden for most victories among major college coaches.
"It's not really a big deal. I think it is for the fans," Paterno said about prepping for the evening start, drawing chuckles. "They tailgate a little longer."
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