As Ohio State prepares to play one of its most prominent games of the season in one of college football’s toughest road environments, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer says it is crucial for his team’s veteran players to step up as leaders if they are to earn a win at Penn State on Saturday.
“It's essential,” Meyer said Monday. “You don't win that game without good leadership.”
Even with the departure of some of the team’s most revered leaders from last season, including J.T. Barrett, Billy Price and Tyquan Lewis, Meyer and the Buckeyes feel good about their leadership. Ohio State lost seven captains from last season, but still has seven captains this season, including a pair of second-year captains in wide receivers Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin, as well as fellow wide receiver Johnnie Dixon, right tackle Isaiah Prince, linebacker Tuf Borland, safety Jordan Fuller and defensive end Nick Bosa (though Bosa is currently sidelined by injury and away from the team).
The leadership of those players and others will likely be needed more this week than it has in most of the Buckeyes’ previous games this season, though, as they play their first true road game of the year against Penn State, which is not only the ninth-ranked team in both major polls but also perhaps Ohio State’s top competition for this year’s Big Ten East title.
“This is when you really earn your captain’s stripes in games like this,” McLaurin said while meeting with the media Wednesday.
Although they recognize the significance and challenge of this game – last time the Buckeyes went to Penn State in 2016, they suffered their only loss of that regular season, and it cost them a shot at a Big Ten title – Campbell said he and the other leaders are trying to make sure the team stays focused on preparing for Saturday’s game the same way they normally prepare for any game.
“You just got to stay on guys about preparing the way that we know how to prepare,” Campbell said. “Really don’t change your routine. Stick to your same routine, know that it’s a big time game and then go out and perform.”
“This is when you really earn your captain’s stripes in games like this.” – Terry McLaurin on playing Penn State on Saturday
For the younger Buckeyes who haven’t played at Beaver Stadium yet, Campbell said there’s no real way to emulate that environment, “just because of how crazy it is.” But players like Campbell and McLaurin who were on the field for the Buckeyes in their 2016 game against the Nittany Lions said they have shared from memories from that loss in Happy Valley with their younger teammates in order to help them prepare for the challenge coming Saturday night.
“I tell those younger guys all the time how I was the kickoff returner (in 2016), and I think it’s like in the third quarter when they do that jump around thing, it’s like you really can’t hear anything if you’re on the field, and I make them aware of that,” Campbell said. “It’s not to scare them, but it’s to get them ready for that environment.”
McLaurin says it's crucial for the Buckeyes’ veterans to draw from their past experiences – not only at Penn State, but in other big games they have played – and apply lessons learned to make sure their team is prepared to play at its best this time around.
“Parris and Johnnie and I and a lot of the older guys have been in games like this back in 2016 when we were at their place, the Team Up North game, just a lot of big games – even the game (against Penn State at Ohio Stadium) last year,” McLaurin said. “So some of the guys that necessarily haven’t been in spots like this, it’s going to be big for us to really encourage them, and make sure that we don’t get too high or too low.”
Campbell’s position as a leader is perhaps especially significant going into a game like Saturday’s, because he is the player trusted with the task of giving the Buckeyes a pregame speech – a responsibility previously taken up by Barrett – this season.
Because he wants his speeches to be authentic, Campbell said he doesn’t rehearse them in advance, instead preferring to simply speak from the heart. But as the Buckeyes look to turn the tables from their previous trip to State College, and come away from Penn State victorious this weekend, Campbell does feel a responsibility to make sure his teammates are energized and ready to go when they take the field on Saturday night.
“I’m speaking from what’s real, I don’t really try to sugarcoat anything,” Campbell said. “If I have something to say, if I see something that’s being said about us in the media, I’m going to say it to our team because I think it needs to be said. But it’s all from the heart, and just to get us ready to play that game.
“You don’t want to go up there and not be prepared,” Campbell continued. “I want them to leave from my speeches with chills and ready to play that game.”