STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Greetings from Beaver Stadium.
The last time I was here was during the worst and weirdest week in Penn State history, as the Jerry Sandusky scandal enveloped the community and Joe Paterno was fired last November. It's safe to say the atmosphere is a little different this time.
There has been a huge buzz on campus for this game, which arrives nearly a year to the day when Paterno coached his last game for the Nittany Lions. And rightly so, as Penn State has won five straight games and Ohio State comes in at 8-0. I attended the "Rally in the Valley" Friday night, and the students were out in force. The game is sold out, and I expect this to be a special atmosphere this evening.
We've had overcast skies all day, but the rain is holding off and temperature is near 60 degrees. You get the feeling that Penn State fans are hungry for a big-game environment after an incredibly difficult year. This is also big for recruiting, as over 100 prospects are in attendance. With the coming scholarship cuts, Bill O'Brien could use an impressive performance to tell recruits it's OK to come to State College despite the sanctions.
The matchups tonight will be fascinating. Our choices as the Big Ten offensive and defensive players of the year -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti -- could go head-to-head, especially if Miller takes off on the run. How much and how well will Miller run it after last week's scary-looking neck injury against Purdue? That's the question that nobody really knows yet. If Miller can't run with abandon -- and really, even if he's healthy, he might not be able to do that against Penn State's disciplined defense -- where does Ohio State get its offensive production? The passing game has been hit or miss, and Carlos Hyde's power running style might not work that well against the Lions' defensive front.
Another big question for the Buckeyes is how they will defend Penn State's offense, especially the way O'Brien uses his tight ends. That could spell major trouble for a team that has turned in some shaky play at linebacker and safety all season. Expect a lot of nickel from Luke Fickell's defense tonight, but there should still be some mismatches for the Lions to exploit, including tight end Kyle Carter. Getting pressure on Matt McGloin will be crucial for Ohio State.
I can't wait to see O'Brien and Urban Meyer match wits, and both coaches have been unafraid to gamble and go for it on fourth down. While the winning team can't go to a bowl, it can still win the Leaders Division title. This one figures to be as good and intense as any bowl game, anyway.