Friday, November 18, 2011

GAME PREVIEW: DRAMA ASIDE, THERE'S STILL A GAME TO PLAY

COLUMBUS — This Saturday's game in Columbus between Ohio State and Penn State certainly won't be lacking in story lines.

Unfortunately, most of them will have nothing to do with personnel match ups or X's and O's, but rather happenings that have taken place off the gridiron.

The Buckeyes' off-field issues have been well documented over the past 12 months. A plethora of player suspensions — due to violating the NCAA's rule on receiving improper benefits — and the firing of head coach Jim Tressel for withholding information of said violations, have left the Buckeyes staring at possibly their worst season in more than a decade.

To add even more to the story line for Saturday's game, it will be the final home tilt of the season — meaning Ohio State will be honoring their senior players prior to kickoff. Why is that adding to Saturday's drama, you ask? Four of the seniors were among the infamous group of players suspended for receiving improper benefits, including receiver DeVier Posey, who will be playing in his first game of the season after having to sit out the initial 10.

It will be interesting to see just how the aforementioned players will be received at Ohio Stadium by the fans on Saturday.

The Nittany Lions' off-field issues, however, have been an entirely different kind of animal.

Penn State recently fired its longtime head coach Joe Paterno. However, the 84-year old mentor wasn't ousted because he withheld information from the NCAA about players selling memorabilia for tattoos. He was let go for not putting the kibosh on the sexual abuse of under-age children being conducted by his former assistant coach of 30 years, Jerry Sandusky.

Although each situation is quite different in nature, both Ohio State and Penn State are having to deal with issues that have nothing to do with strapping on the pads and playing the game of football.

Buckeyes head coach Luke Fickell said that the past months have certainly been frustrating, but he stated that his players have done a great job of keeping their heads up and moving forward despite all the negativity surrounding them.

"I can just speak from the experience of our young guys and all the turmoil that they've had," Fickell said. "I'm not comparing and contrasting. That's probably what I don't want to do, but I think young people are resilient.

"Sometimes they have a loss or they have a situation that happens and they get over it probably quicker than maybe some of us older people ... they do a good job of continuing to move on, and I know ours have done that. It's not easy."

The players don't have much choice but to 'move on.' There are still games to be played.

And believe it or not, there actually is a game being played this Saturday.

Through all the drama, Penn State (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) is still in the middle of the Leaders division title hunt, and a win at Ohio State Saturday would allow the Nittany Lions to control their own destiny with a regular season, winner-take-all finale against Wisconsin.

The Nittany Lions have one of the best defenses in the nation, giving up just 12.9 points (1st Big Ten, 3rd FBS) and only 287.2 total yards (3rd Big Ten, 8th FBS) per game. That includes a pass defense that has allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for just six touchdowns to 14 interceptions this season — both tops in the Big Ten.

Not good news for the Buckeyes who possess the worst-ranked passing offense in the conference.

"I think it starts with their defense," Fickell said of Penn State. "No. 1 in the Big Ten, I think, in pass efficiency; so that might make it a little more difficult to throw the football like some of us want to do. But the thing that they're going to do is they're going to pressure you. They're going to have those front four guys coming every single time. They do a great job with that, ever since I've known them. Ever since we've played against them, I think that's where it starts with them."

Bottom Line

There's no secret to what Ohio State needs to do in order to win this game. They must have balance offensively, meaning they need to become much more successful throwing the football if they have any hopes of putting points on the board against the vaunted Penn State defense.

Ohio State's offense has been completely one-dimensional this season, relying on the power run game — and the mobility of true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller — to dictate success.

Fickell and staff have to let Miller throw the football, and not just on third downs or in the waning seconds of the game. They must show confidence in their young signal caller and the Buckeyes ability to move the ball through the air.

The return of Posey may provide the staff that needed boost of confidence.

Prediction: OSU 26-16