Nittany Lions Know It's Got To Be Close

Penn State hosts No. 1 Ohio State and prepares for low scoring, defensive affair

Oct. 26, 2007

College Football Preview: Week 9

> The Red Zone  |  Tape It Up  |  Strike The Pose  |  Breaking The Code
> B.J.: Exterior Designs  |  Amsinger: Weekly Picks  |  Sorenson: 10 Questions  |   Braff: Coaches With Guts
Trev: No Time To Dog It  |  Ohio State Offense Getting Better   |  Hart: Another Loony Weekend
> Blackburn: Same Lights, New Show In Blacksburg  |  Palm: Road To The BCS
> Caparell: Penn State Knows It's Got To Be Close  |  Crystal Ball: Predictions

By Adam Caparell



Adam is's football editor and national football writer.
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The excitement in Happy Valley started early this week.


All the talk around campus has been about Saturday's game and with Paternoville out in full force as early as ever, even the professors have been swept up in the hype that is Penn State's showdown with the nation's No. 1 team. Just ask Nittany Lion center A.Q. Shipley.


Shipley had some important academic business to attend to Wednesday, and after handing in his exam his Labor and Industrial Relations professor told him, "Now it's time to go focus on Ohio State."




With one exam out of the way, Shipley and Nittany Lion offense have what figures to be their sternest test of the season when the Buckeyes march into Beaver Stadium under the bright lights. Ohio State enters as not only the top team in the country, but also the top team in the BCS rankings and the best defense in the nation. And they have the statistics to back it up.


The Buckeyes are the toughest team to score on, toughest team to move the ball against, the hardest team to pass on and the second toughest to run against. They're good. Very good. Frustratingly good and back atop the national polls they dominated all of last year.


"Yeah, we're playing against one of the better defensive teams in the country," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "We are playing against the No. 1 team in the country according to some, all the polls, I guess, and we've just got to go out there and do the best we can and see what happens."


This one is far from a clash of titans. The Buckeyes are a perfect 8-0 on the season, but own the No. 1 ranking in the country by virtue of everyone in front of them losing through the season's first half. Their offense, while improving, is far from the juggernaut it was last season while the competition - they've only faced one ranked opponent so far - has many questioning just how good they really are.


Penn State, on the other hand, disappointingly lost two games after running out to a 3-0 record just when talk of national title contention was creeping into the Nittany Lions' lexicon. Chalk up the defeats to not taking care of the ball and the inconsistency of quarterback Anthony Morelli.


In its nine-point performance on the road against Michigan, Penn State lost two fumbles and Morelli completed less than half of his passes. The next week, in the road loss to Illinois, Morelli threw three interceptions. And just like that, Penn State was out of the polls and an afterthought in the Big Ten.


But a three-game conference winning streak has given the Nittany Lions renewed confidence, as evidenced by their 33-point average in those games. Morelli's been more careful with the ball and the rushing attack has really shown its teeth. Even without the suspended Austin Scott, the combination of Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster has paced the Nittany Lions.


"We're coming together and starting to open up some cracks," Shipley said.


But cracks are few and far between with the Buckeyes defense. And the Nittany Lions know it.


 "They do a lot of things that are really good," Shipley said. "Their defensive line is solid the whole way across. They play with leverage. They play hard. Everything they do they just do it good."


The Buckeyes do some things differently than your normal defense, but what they do exceptionally well is get pressure on the quarterback. And they love to blitz. They do it on almost every play.


"Year in and year out, they're a big blitz team. We know that coming into the game and we're accustomed to them doing that," Shipley said.


But will the Nittany Lions be able to handle it? Penn State is going to be without fullback Matt Hahn, one of their best run blockers, and depth at the guard position has been an issue for a few weeks now. So Morelli figures to feel the pressure all day long, and it'll come from a cast of characters like all-world linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive end Vernon Gholston. For those reasons, Paterno knows Morelli can't shoulder the whole load. Ohio State's just too good.


"This is not a team that you can look at and say, `They are not solid here, not sound there,'" Paterno said.  "They've got a good player in every place, and they coach them really well. So I think Morelli, he can't carry us. It isn't that he is going to carry us. We just got to be able to do some things at certain times that will be crucial if he can do it and I think he will. I think he has gotten himself in a position now that he can do it."


And if the Nittany Lion offense sputters early, whether it's Morelli's inability to move the ball in the air or the offensive line's being unable to own the line of scrimmage, it's imperative that Penn State not get discouraged.


"You can't just get down right away. You have to have patience in a game like this," Shipley said. "If people are expecting you to go out and run for 200 yards, it's not going to happen against a defense like this."


The Buckeyes are stingy. Only two teams have rushed for more than 100 yards - teams are only averaging 62 yards per game on the ground - and they've allowed just four offensive touchdowns. So Saturday figures to be an old-school Big Ten battle. It'll be a low-scoring, physical football game, and the yards aren't going to come easy.


"I think a lot of it depends on Morelli and everybody else," Paterno said. "We have to give him pass protection and have got to be able to handle some things these people do. You are sure not going to take the football and run it down their throat. Can't do that. They are too good for that."


These two always play each other tough. Four of their last six games have been decided by a touchdown or less and the favored Buckeyes were picked off the last time they came to Happy Valley. Can history repeat itself in front of 100,000-plus, with many expected to be clad in white?


"I know Ohio State is good. We've got to find out how good we are," Paterno said.