This week's game at Ohio State is the most important of 2011 for the Nittany Lions
It technically might not matter a lick in the Big Ten title chase, but that doesn't mean the Ohio State game isn't vital to Penn State's season
This week's game at Ohio State is the most important of the season for Penn State.
Woah, Nellie! More important than last week's the-nation-is-watching emotional spectacle vs. Nebraska? Yes, from a football perspective, because that was more about the Sandusky Albatross.
More important than next week at Wisconsin, even though PSU, at 5-1 in Big Ten play, can lose this week and still be guaranteed a Big Ten title game berth if it beats the Badgers in the season finale?
Please allow an explanation. It's all about psychology.
At this juncture, Penn State is not going to win at Wisconsin if it doesn't win first at Ohio State.
In simple terms, the Lions would be mentally and emotionally shot by that point, while Wisconsin will be skyrocketing.
Look at what's happened to each team: Two weeks ago, Penn State (8-2, 5-1) was 2.5 games up in the Leaders Division with three to play. The Big Ten title game was in its grasp.
Then came the Sandusky horror show, the loss of icon Joe Paterno and assistant coach Mike McQueary, and losses to Nebraska and (if it happens) Ohio State. Which means that heading to Madison, the Lions collectively will be frazzled, disillusioned, angry, despondent and anxious.
That's no way to approach a vital football game. On the road. Against a superior foe.
They'll be ripe to get pounded. Which Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2) happens to specialize in, by an average score of 52-11 in home games this season.
The Badgers, meanwhile, were devastated a few weeks ago by consecutive narrow losses to Michigan State and Ohio State to conclude October. At that point Wisconsin was the frazzled, despondent bunch. In an eight-day span its national title hopes and, seemingly, conference title hopes had been dashed by last-second and last-minute defeats, respectively.
Just a few weeks later, the Badgers find themselves hosting PSU needing just one win to reach the Big Ten title game, on Senior Day, riding a three-game win streak? How do you think they will play?
PSU has no chance to beat Wisconsin unless it plays its best game. And there is no way the Lions will play their best following the 1-2-3-4 knockout punches of Sandusky-Paterno/McQueary-Nebraska-Ohio State.
Which is why PSU must make its stand right now, Saturday afternoon, in the Horseshoe. It is a must-win.
Then, the Lions can ride an uplifting victory, a much-needed confidence blast and an us-against-the-world swagger into Madison, and give themselves a puncher's chance.
Penn State is just 1-8 at OSU since joining the Big Ten, but this is one of the worst Ohio State teams it will have faced. The Lions can win if they do anything on offense.
There is one more very important reason why PSU needs to win this week: Because Wisconsin could lose Saturday at Illinois and gift the Leaders Division title to PSU (if PSU beats OSU)..
The Badgers are just 1-2 on the road, the lone win coming last week vs. Minnesota.
Illinois is slumping, for sure. But they've likely bottomed out after four straight losses, and they did open the season with six wins, so they are capable. Head coach Ron Zook walked out of a press conference this week when a reporter asked a question relating to his job security after Zook specifically requested no such questions. Teams sometimes rally around silly things like that.
Teams also rally around things like this: 27-year-old Illinois defensive back Trulon Henry was shot in the hand in a late-night incident earlier this week. Henry, the older brother of former Illinois star Arrelious Benn, served four years in jail for armed robbery before turning his life around, and allegedly was attempting to be a peacemaker when he was shot.
Illinois is either going to cave in Saturday, or bow up. And Wisconsin just might be peeking ahead to the PSU game. Also, it's expected to be very windy Saturday in Champaign, and bad weather almost always favors the inferior team.
While everyone is looking ahead to next week's game against Wisconsin to determine the Leaders Division champion, the winner really will be determined this Saturday.
If Penn State can't get it done this week, it almost certainly won't next week.