Lions look for rare win over top 5 team
UNIVERSITY PARK – Ohio State will never consider Penn State its biggest rival – that’s Michigan – but one thing the Buckeyes frequently have come to represent for the Nittany Lions is their best chance at a true signature victory.
Just look back to the electric atmosphere night at Beaver Stadium in 2005 and the Mark Rubin-Terrelle Pryor fumble game at the Horseshoe in 2008, victories over the Buckeyes that mark PSU’s two best wins since they went undefeated in 1994.
Ohio State was No. 6 in 2005 and No. 9 in 2008, and those wins propelled Penn State to conference titles and BCS bowl appearances.
How big would a win be for the Lions on Saturday against the No. 4 Buckeyes? Well, they haven’t beaten a top five team since way back in 1999, when they knocked off No. 4 Arizona in the season opener.
Penn State has lost nine in a row against top five competition since then, a streak it can end if it pulls off a big upset Saturday at the Horseshoe.
“We recognize that we’re facing a very, very good opponent at home, and we’re really looking forward to the challenge,” PSU guard John Urschel said. “If you can’t get excited for a game like this on Saturday, you shouldn’t be playing college football.
“Definitely I see it as a big rivalry,” he added.
Penn State hasn’t beaten a team of this caliber in this century, and if it does so Saturday with only 61 scholarship players, it would be somewhat staggering. That’s why Vegas has the Buckeyes, who have won 19 in a row, including 35-23 last year at PSU, favored by 14 points.
“It would be a huge win for us,” Urschel said.
Then the senior team leader added an intriguing second sentence to his comment.
“But it’s not enough to talk about it,” he said.
The Lions simply want to let their play do the talking without hyping up the game too much, and if they’re good enough, then something magical could happen Saturday.
If they’re not good enough, they’ll move on to the next component of their 12 one-game seasons, as coach Bill O’Brien described it.
This week, though, is not just another game, and O’Brien didn’t try to hide that fact Tuesday.
“You’re playing Ohio State in the Horseshoe,” he said. “I mean, that’s a great opportunity for everybody.
“I’m not very good at articulating this,” the coach added, “but Penn State versus Ohio State, and you think about what that means in the history of college football and these two teams playing each other and the tradition of both schools and two great coaching staffs with a lot of good players on both sides of the ball. You know, it’s a lot of fun.”
To meet the challenge and take advantage of the opportunity, O’Brien just wants his players to do one thing: focus on their responsibilities on every play.
That’s his message each week, regardless of the opponent. And the message doesn’t change with the Lions, led by a freshman quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, going into an extremely hostile environment for the first time this year.
“He’s a calm guy,” O’Brien said of how Hackenberg will handle the pressure. “He’s got a quiet confidence about him.”
His teammates also have confidence in Hackenberg, the Big Ten’s leading passer who will have to have a big game if the Lions are to pull the upset.
“He’s really good at handling tough situations, handling adversity,” Urschel said.
Penn State might be catching Ohio State at a good time, or it could be just the opposite.
The Buckeyes struggled this past week against Iowa, trailing 17-10 at the half before putting together a strong second half for a 34-24 win.
That game, and other close ones this year, might have shown PSU’s coaching staff ways to hang tough with Ohio State. Or, it might have been just the wakeup call that Urban Meyer’s team needed, and now the Buckeyes will come out with fire in their eyes Saturday.
Whatever the case, Ohio State has shown an ability to find a way to win every week for a season and a half now, and the Lions will have to overcome that intangible if they’re going to end the Buckeyes’ national title hopes.
“When you’ve got a team like that that’s never lost under your leadership – Coach Meyer’s leadership – you’ve got a very confident team,” O’Brien said. “So even if they – maybe it’s a close game in the first half – they go in at halftime, and well, we’ve won 19 in a row, we’ve got to make these adjustments and here’s what we do and we’re confident that we’re going to be able to.”