The Penn State-Ohio State clash Saturday in Columbus lacks the significance of the teams' past two meetings, but the game certainly seems more interesting now than it would have been a month ago.
Back then, Penn State's offense looked utterly lost in back-to-back defeats to Iowa and Illinois. The red zone was a dead zone, running back Evan Royster was a shell of his former self and the offensive line repeatedly backslid, both literally and figuratively.
If those Lions had stepped on the field with these Buckeyes, the result probably wouldn't have been pretty. And it still might get ugly Saturday in Columbus, at least if you pay attention to the odds makers -- or Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
"We're not in Ohio State's league right now," Paterno said Tuesday. "Not this year."
Paterno's players are a little more confident, especially on offense.
Penn State has scored 109 points in its past three games after mustering only 65 points in its previous five contests. Former walk-on Matt McGloin has provided a spark at quarterback, earning the starting job for Saturday's game after passing for 475 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in his last two games.
The biggest jump has come from Royster. After recording just one 100-yard rushing performance in the first seven games, Royster has done so in back-to-back weeks, racking up 284 yards.
"There might be a little more of a sense of urgency lately," Royster said Tuesday. "I think everybody's playing harder. It's obvious. Once you see other people start to improve and get better, it makes you want to get better."
Why did it take half a season for the light to go on?
"In the past, I haven't seen too much adversity," Royster said. "We've seen a lot of it this year, and it's made each of us mature a little bit. It's good for us. You don't want to lose games, but it's good to be able to deal with it. ... I just think after being 3-3, we had a lot of senior guys step up and say 'This isn't how I want my senior season to go.'"
Ohio State's decorated senior class wanted to see their season end with a national championship. That likely won't happen, but the Buckeyes are still very much alive in the race for the Big Ten title, which they've won or shared in each of the past five seasons.
November has been a banner month for the Buckeyes under head coach Jim Tressel, and after an open week, Ohio State begins the home stretch with no margin for error.
"Every year we look forward to this time," senior defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. "It's a critical month. It's all going to come down to us dominating and creating havoc."
Heyward did just that last year in State College, recording a team-high 11 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks. Penn State had no answer for the Buckeyes' star, who earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"That was my best game last year," he said. "Going into [Saturday's game], I just looked at how I used my hands last year and just got off blocks."
Royster is impressed with Ohio State's front seven and said Penn State's top priority Saturday will be recognizing Buckeyes' blitzes, which the Lions think will come often.
"The thing that's been pointed out to us is they blitz a third of the time, and that's a ton," Royster said. "We're going to have to attack those weaknesses and those zones. ... Sometimes they can run themselves right out of a play."
Heyward said Royster's blitz assessment is a bit exaggerated -- "I don't think we blitz that much, I hope not," he said with a laugh -- but Ohio State will shuffle its personnel to give offensive lines different looks. Ohio State isn't rotating as many linemen up front as it has in past years, but it always boasts versatile linemen.
Although the Buckeyes aren't among the national leaders in sacks (tied for 75th) and tackles for loss (tied for 72nd), they're just as stingy as normal, ranking fourth nationally against the run (84 ypg allowed).
"Our defensive line has been very solid," coach Jim Tressel said. "They've done a good job versus run and pass. Certainly their numbers are very good."
Heyward hopes the best is yet to come.
"Our legacy will be made in November," he said.