COLUMBUS — Before Penn State travels to Ohio Stadium today for an 8 p.m. game, Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien will remind his players to savor the setting.
His message: You can have your pizza and wings and potato bowls. This is darn near as good as it gets.
"No offense to the bowl system," O’Brien said, "[but] here we go to Ohio State, with more than 100,000 people in the Horseshoe. I don't know of any bowl games that are better than that, other than the national championship."
A year after the Buckeyes downed Penn State in the Ineligibowl, one of the Big Ten’s best rivalries is back with changed stakes. Bowl-banned PSU will be playing for the name of a program not long ago given its last rites, while No. 4 Ohio State — unchained to chase a national championship this year — is playing for everything.
Though OSU (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) is a 15-point favorite, the Nittany Lions’ ever-expanding postscandal resume suggests it is unwise to write them off.
It was only last year Penn State appeared headed toward a slow football death. The NCAA hit the program with a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, and severe scholarship reductions. This season, the Nittany Lions have 61 scholarship players — 24 less than the NCAA maximum.
Yet reports of their demise, of course, were not just greatly exaggerated. They demanded retraction. Penn State rallied last season from back-to-back early losses to win eight of its last 10 games and, with the help of a star freshman quarterback, have found a similar reserve this fall — the season depth issues were supposed to be felt in full. The Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-1) were last seen stunning previously unbeaten Michigan in four overtimes.
Asked about the improbable success, O’Brien was in no mood to wax sentimental.
"It’s not like we’re 6-0," he said.
OSU coach Urban Meyer, though, said what his counterpart would not.
"This is a very good team," he said. "A team that has momentum, a team that had a bye week, a team that’s rested and well-coached. They’re legitimate. This is Penn State.”
The biggest reason they are Penn State — not "were," as a doomsday Sports Illustrated headline blared last year — is O’Brien, the 44-year-old former Patriots assistant. The next biggest may be Christian Hackenberg, the five-star quarterback who committed to PSU before the sanctions were announced and kept his word.
Rated the No. 2 overall quarterback recruit by Rivals.com, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Virginia native leads the Big Ten in completions and passing yards per game (279). In six starts, Hackenberg has thrown for 1,672 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.
A Buckeyes run defense that ranks seventh nationally and has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season should hold down Penn State’s ground game. So the night is expected to pivot in good part on OSU’s ability to rattle the 18-year-old QB. Otherwise, it could be a long game for OSU’s secondary, which has struggled through suspension, injury, and inconsistency.
The matchup to watch is OSU cornerback Bradley Roby against Penn State wideout Allen Robinson, a 6-foot-3 junior from Southfield, Mich., averaging 117 receiving yards per game
"We know if we put some pressure on [Hackenberg], we can make him nervous," OSU defensive tackle Michael Bennett said.
How will Hackenberg respond?
If it’s anything like Penn State has responded to bigger challenges, the Buckeyes better be ready for a shootout.
"I know a lot about Penn State, and it doesn't surprise me that it’s doing well," Meyer said. "They've got a quality coach, and it's a very quality school that has overcome a lot of adversity."