Evan Royster: He Good
College football is a wonderful thing. Just six weeks after being completely humbled by Southern Cal and thinking the Buckeyes' season might as well have been over, here we are staring down another huge game.
In Penn State, the Buckeyes welcome the #3 team in the country and that's with the handicap of playing in the Big Ten and its perceived lack of skilled players. 35 first half points on that Oregon State team that beat the mighty Trojans? 48 in Madison? 46 against Michigan last week? (And yes, those two teams aren't exactly the class of the Big Ten this season, but 48 and 46?!)
The catalyst for this explosion are the two rocky offseasons that featured back-to-back top-eight finishes in the Fulmer Cup and a punchy Joe Paterno getting grilled by ESPN, the "Joe-Must-Go" chorus was reaching a deafening level in and around State College.
Then came the announcement. The team would be breaking out a new offense called the "Spread HD". At first, it was nothing more than a punch line or a diversion from the off-field problems, but that offense has been a smashing success -- and then some. Though Paterno will be confined to the booth for the game, that offense is in more than capable hands with Galen Hall. The Buckeye defense is going to have its hands full.
My goodness do the Buckeyes ever have a game to get up for. A chance to play spoiler and move into a better bowl by possibly changing some minds around the country. And it's the de facto Big Ten championship. The weather is looking more and more like it might cooperate and stay dry for kickoff, but regardless, the Horseshoe will be ringed with scarlet hooliganism propped up by a long sauce-fueled day. And WE GOT FREAKIN' LIGHTS!!
Credit for Penn State's offensive turnaround really must be split primarily between quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster. Both first-year starters, even Lion fans would be hard-pressed to tell you which one has been more valuable to the team's success this year.
Clark, a native of The Yo, has really been the anti-Morelli. Whereas Morelli was the highly-touted high school recruit that turned in a rather forgettable career at Penn State, Clark kind of arrived at Penn State under the radar a little. He has Juice size (6-2/231) and is making the most of his first season as a starter and is killing teams with his arm and his legs. He's sporting a 11/2 touchdown to interception ratio, eight rushing touchdowns and like his counterpart with the Buckeyes, a flawless record as a starter. He's had a bit of a fumble problem as of late and plays with emotion that sometimes leads to mistakes, but he's also a huge reason the Nittany Lions are so darn good on third down.
Royster has been just as good. He's failed to crack the century mark in only three games this year -- and all three were 40+ point Penn State victories. Fresh off an 18 carry, 174 yard day against the Wolverines, he's good for a little over a touchdown a game. And he's fresh. Despite putting up 893 yards in only eight games, he's yet to carry the ball even 20 times in a contest. He gets his yards behind a unit that Marcus Freeman called "the best offensive line we've seen,", led by senior A.Q. Shipley, quite possibly the best center in the nation. The line has been extremely good, but not quite perfect. Guard Stefen Wisniewski has a hobbled ankle and there is some concern amongst the faithful over their third-and-short performance lately, which was 0-3 against Michigan and similarly bad against Purdue. But when you're complaining about that after a 46-7 win, you know things really can't be all that bad.
Through the air, Penn State will go the senior triumvirate of Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams. The three received adequate amounts of hype as freshman when they burst onto the scene and helped the team to that BCS bowl bid following the 2005 season. None of the three have Nintendo numbers, but Butler and Norwood have doubled-up Robo and Hartline's numbers, and Williams is dangerous in the backfield as well as in the return game.
Maybin has been a pleasant
surprise for Penn State
The injury to captain Sean Lee was huge in the spring and Linebacker U hasn't exactly found that next superstar backer yet, so they'll continue to rotate bodies, though sophomore Navorro Bowman figures to see a lot of time. The defensive front, however, is making up for any uneasy linebacker play and is phenomenal. Tackle Jared Odrick is solid and the ends feature Maurice Evans and his 12.5 sacks of a year ago and Aaron Maybin and his 10 sacks of 2008. Due to academic problems, Maybin wasn't even on the roster back in August, but once cleared, he stepped into Evans' role during his suspension and quickly mastered the position -- his three sacks against Wisconsin attest to that. Both ends are fast and fast ends help contain quarterbacks that like to run outside.
Just to give you one more thing to worry about, the Penn State secondary is right up there with the Buckeye secondary at the top of the conference in pass defense. Part of their schedule is complete crap, but 11 interceptions against only four touchdowns allowed is pretty fresh no matter which way you cut it. The star of the unit is senior safety Anthony Scirrotto. He suffered a concussion against Michigan last week, but is expected to be play Saturday night.
NOTES: Penn State is playing its 4th road game in five games... Joe Paterno is 7-12 against Ohio State... Joe Paterno first started coaching when Truman was still in the White House... Ohio State is the only Big Ten school with a better record than Penn State over the past four years... Penn State is seeking its 10th 9-0 start under Paterno... There are eight Ohioans on the Penn State roster.
Though he's had his share of rookie mistakes and growing pains, Terrelle Pryor has stepped up each time he has been asked to do so. First was the game-winning drive and touchdown to pull out the victory in Madison and then, in his 2nd game worthy of Mark May's scrutiny, he kick-started the 45-7 romp against Michigan State last weekend. If he gets off to a similar start at home against Penn State, the results could be glorious.
I am worried about a couple of things, however. First, I think the pressure of playing in front of the quick-to-boo home crowd gets to this team. They are definitely a much looser team on the road (save for one terrifying night in mid-September). Second, lost in the tale of Pryor's request for Tressel to bench him last weekend if he didn't start hot was Tresel's witty quip that if he threw an interception, he'd take care of that. This gels with what others have said about the Vests insistence on avoiding turnovers coming at the expense in the growth of quarterbacks. If Pryor comes out and plays loose, he's one of the top two or three players on the field. If not, we're in for some of the tentative, long sack stuff which causes mass stomach pains in Franklin County.
Beanie was nicely primed last week with his 31 carries in East Lansing. I'd love to see him get 30 more this weekend, nursing an early two touchdown lead, but whatever his touches, Penn State has not seen a back of his level since, well, the last time these two teams met. I promise high quality stills of the moment he plants his hand into Scirrotto's grill because it will happen. Still, the Penn State defensive front will make him work. If he can get to the next level, there will be mad yardage because their linebackers are not what they usually trot out, but he'll have to get through that line first and hope the Buckeye line can do its job helping him do so.
Speaking of the line, it looks like we're closer to nailing down the starting five. After getting a surprise start at right guard last weekend, Rehring is now penciled-in as the starter for that spot in the most recent depth chart (PDF). Person is listed as his backup and though earlier in the year, I personally would have probably taken Person over Rehring, Big Steve was pwning Spartans last weekend. Boone and particularly Browning will get a workout with Penn State's ends. I really expect the Lions to attack Browning as often as possible, so he'll need to come ready to play.
The receivers have been sitting on ice as of late, but they will be needed to have any chance at a victory. I'm not sure 11 attempts will cut it this weekend. We're still tracking the emergence of Posey and Flash and Saturday would be the perfect breakout opportunity for one of them.
Raise your hand if you thought the starting defensive ends heading into this game would be Rob Rose and Thaddeus Gibson. As crazy as that would have sounded back in July, the new blood has definitely provided a spark to a defensive front that was sputtering just three weeks ago. Gibson has been a force and Rose set the tone early against Sparty by getting into the backfield on Michigan State's first play of the game. Curtis Terry and Nathan Williams will continue to provide depth at end and I feel good about all four of them going into this game.
It will be interesting to watch the linebackers as they were getting handled early last year by the Penn State offensive line before the score got out of hand and the Lions had to abandon the run. Laurinaitis is coming off his finest game of the season wants to continue to prove us naysayers wrong for saying that he might have been a tad overrated heading into the season. Freeman may see some spy duty on Clark (along with Hines), but clearly for the Buckeyes to have a chance at slowing down Royster, they'll need to be on.
Not much to worry about in the Buckeye secondary. Partly because that's been the best-performing unit the past few weeks (Jenkins for team MVP? He's good-best!) and also because Clark won't kill a team through the air. He's effective, but he's not going to go Graham Harrell on anybody. Having Chekwa available is big, but I sleep better at night knowing that if for some reason he can't go, the backup has two MNC starts under his belt.
NOTES: Note 1... Note 2... The home team has won 12 of 15 games in this series... Ohio State is 63-18-5 in homecoming games; Tressel's only loss at OSU in a homecoming game came in 2001 against Wisconsin (20-17)... Musberger, Herbstreit and Lisa Salters will be calling the game for ABC... The JHC will be honored at halftime for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame on 12/9.
I feel good about this one. I hope it's not misguided swagger and I realize that this is the best Penn State team Tressel has faced at Ohio State, but the teams match-up from a talent perspective and I believe they have a mental edge over the Lions -- especially in Columbus. The Buckeyes have done an excellent job this season creating turnovers and I know it's something they worked hard on during the offseason, but they'll need to do more of the same Saturday. I'm really hoping for clear weather and maybe a Flash kickoff return to get things started.
Ohio State 26, Penn State 20