COLUMBUS - The two most unpleasant locales in the memory bank of any Buckeyes fan are topographical opposites - the desert and the mountains.
Deep in the sands of Arizona was the site when a No. 1-ranked Ohio State team got ambushed by Florida in last season's national championship game. The Buckeyes' most recent loss in a regular season game is not recent at all, but it came up in the Allegheny range, when Penn State knocked off a Troy Smith-led Ohio State 17-10 on Oct. 8, 2005.
This week the top-ranked Buckeyes make another trip to those mountains, to the scene of their last defeat in a Big Ten game. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) faces Penn State (6-2, 3-2) Saturday night in front of a national TV audience and a packed Beaver Stadium that likely will replicate the frenzied, 100,000-member mosh pit the Buckeyes entered two years ago.
"Now we can focus solely on them, and it's going to be a great challenge," Ohio State junior wide receiver Brian Robiskie said about the meeting with the Nittany
Lions, who have won three straight after opening Big Ten play with roadwith road losses to Michigan and Illinois. "It will be a good test for us. They have a really strong defense so we have to be ready."
Ohio State's Jim Tressel, who is 70-14 in his seventh season as the Buckeyes coach, said his team should expect nothing but the Nittany Lions' best shot. "We've been tested all year," Tressel said. "Everybody that plays Ohio State is going to play them to their "A" game. It's just the way it is, and we're proud of that. Everybody we play, plays the best they can, so that's a test in itself. We know there are some big tests coming up, but the tests we've taken so far, we've passed, and we've got a big one coming up at the end of this week, and we'll see how we can make out with that one."
Ohio State, which survived a potentially fatal lapse against Michigan State on Saturday, watching a 24-0 lead quickly erode into a narrow 24-17 edge after the Spartans returned two Buckeyes' turnovers for touchdowns, is aware how flawed its eighth victory of the season was.
"They're not all pretty like you want them to be," senior fullback Dionte Johnson said following the win over MSU. "There's some things we've got to clean up, things in the second half where we didn't execute the way we wanted to, but as long as we came out with the "W" I'm satisfied, and looking forward to going into Happy Valley next."
Happy Valley, a term that refers to State College and the area around the home of Penn State, will play host to the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since 1989 when a top-ranked Notre Dame team came into Beaver Stadium. Ohio State sophomore receiver Brian Hartline said the close call against Michigan State showed that the Buckeyes are a resilient bunch when faced with adversity.
"[That] game was a real battle. I think we showed again that this is a team of fighters and we are not going to give up or back off," Hartline said.
In the moments following the win over Michigan State, Ohio State senior offensive tackle Kirk Barton made no attempt to hide his displeasure over the bad spell his team had endured, and he indicated that the Buckeyes needed to turn things up a notch before facing Penn State.
"It's hard to be calm and not throw a hissy fit, but I'm not happy. We came back to win it all, and that's what we're doing," Barton said, referring to the turnovers Michigan State converted into touchdowns. We've got to get better this week."
Barton said he was confident the Buckeyes would retain their top spot in the BCS standings and go into State College as the No. 1 ranked team in the polls, despite the shaky moments against Michigan State. Ohio State has won 26 straight regular season games, and 18 straight Big Ten games.
"They can't penalize us if we don't lose," Barton said, "and so far, we're 8-0."
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