Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ohio State vs. Penn State: It's time for the Lions to shine

Ohio State might be undefeated and have a lot going for it, but right now depleted, sanction-saddled Penn State is the better team, believe it or not

There is nothing magical or mystical going on with Penn State football these days.
The Lions' success - five straight wins after two losses to start the season and the most traumatic offseason ever - is not about a Mark Emmert-fueled quest, or some sort of karma, or Mike Mauti's rage.
Okay, maybe it's a little bit about those things.
But mostly, it's about this: Very good coaches and very good players committed to each other and to playing very good football.
And right now, those coaches and players have, improbably, forged Penn State into a better team than Ohio State - just in time to host the Buckeyes in Beaver Stadium this week in perhaps the Big Ten's best matchup of the season.

PSU is not better due to some gimmicks, or lucky twists, or good fortune.
Penn State is a better team because - yes - it has better players and better coaches and is playing better football.
That is a simple-yet-difficult concept for most to embrace these days, for several reasons:

For starters, Ohio State is unbeaten and ranked in the Top 10. Penn State is unranked.
But Penn State is better.
Ohio State is coached by the living legend Urban Meyer, owner of two recent national titles. Penn State is coached by a guy, Bill O'Brien, in his first season as a head coach, whose hiring was widely ridiculed and belittled by many "experts."
But Penn State is better.
Two or three months ago, and two or three weeks ago, the notion that Penn State was better than Ohio State was comical.
But Penn State is better.
Ohio State had another in its endless string of stellar recruiting classes this year, including numerous 4-star signees who had originally committed to Penn State pre-Sandusky scandal. While the Buckeyes were reeling them in, Penn State, witnessed a dozen players leave the team, including several front-line stars, right before the season, most doing so after Emmert levied the brutal NCAA sanctions that enticed players to transfer.
Ohio State's head coach is considered a special teams savant. Penn State's punter and kicker, who were backups until Anthony Fera transferred, have played poorly - by State College High standards.
But Penn State is better.
Ohio State has a blue-chip recruit turned Heisman Trophy favorite/electrifying human highlight reel at quarterback (Braxton Miller). Penn State has a former walk-on who arguably was the most maligned and disrespected QB in school history at times (Matt McGloin).
Penn State lost to Ohio U., and then to woebegone Virginia (the Cavaliers haven't won since), to start the season. Ohio State hasn't lost, period, despite playing an extra game and arguably tougher schedule.
But Penn State is better
Ohio State has the conference's No. 1 draft prospect, DT Johnathan Hankins, rated No. 10 overall in the 2013 NFL draft by both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Penn State's best draft prospect plays for USC. The Lions' second-best prospect is coming off his second torn knee ligament.
But Penn State is better.
So then, how and why exactly is Penn State is better?
Look at the evidence in their performances:
Ohio State has had seven relatively middling wins and one very impressive game this season, the 63-38 home win over Nebraska, an historic offensive explosion.
Ohio State has played just two road games: A 17-16 win at Michigan State, and 52-49 at Indiana. That Nebraska eruption was followed by the shockingly close Indiana game (where was the Buckeyes' defense?), and then a Houdini-esque escape last week against struggling Purdue in OT, after a last-second 2-point conversion tied it for OSU.
So, it's clear Ohio State is playing well enough to win but doing nothing special. And the last two games have been especially undistinguished
PSU, meanwhile, has shown clear improvement every single week, as the players and almost entirely new coaching staff have become increasingly accustomed to each other.
The NCAA sanctions/transfers were clear setbacks, and the opening game losses were unsettling and disappointing. Since, PSU's five straight wins all are by more than 10 points.
The offense has adapted to O'Brien's new uptempo, tight-end heavy system, and the defense has adapted to Ted Roof's new system with increased man-to-man coverage.

Both systems were clear departures from the previous regime, so naturally it was going to take time for things to coalesce. And, conversely, the coaches also needed time to adjust to the players, to grasp their strengths and weaknesses.
Penn State's seven-week, steady improvement arc peaked again in Saturday's virtuoso performance at Iowa. The 38-14 win was much more one-sided and impressive than the score indicated.
At halftime PSU held a 24-0 lead with a 304-99 yardage edge.
A minute into the 4th quarter, PSU led 38-0 and held a 448-142 yardage edge.
Wow. The Hawkeyes hadn't sustained a remotely similar evisceration at Kinnick Stadium since the very early days of Kirk Ferentz's 14-year tenure, going back to the last millennium. And while this is not a vintage Iowa team, it was 4-2 and coming off a win at Michigan State. It was competent. Penn State smashed it.

Ohio State has nothing like that on its resume.
In its previous two games, Penn State routed Illinois on the road (35-7) and scored three unanswered 4th quarter touchdowns to come-from-behind and defeat previously unbeaten Northwestern (39-28).
The PSU running game and passing game both have steadily improved. The pace and tempo of the offense has picked up. The play-calling has expanded and diversified. The line, anchored by senior center Matt Stankiewitch, has steadily progressed. So have the quarterback, running backs and receivers/tight ends. 
On defense, third downs have vastly improved. The depleted secondary, burned badly early, gets tighter every week. PSU is second in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 15.7 points a game. The front seven, a very talented group, has been stout. 
Talent: There's simply more of it on the PSU roster than most believed before the season and seem willing to acknowledge now. Everyone wants to credit O'Brien (which is fine, he totally deserves it), and the dedication and spirit of the players ... and then add a dash of magic dust and cosmic forces to account for PSU's performance. They figure there must be something otherworldly going on here. 
The truth? Nothing supernatural, just the blood, sweat and tears of smart, dedicated, focused and talented players under the guidance of a smart, dedicated, focused and talented coaching staff.
Is there a defense in America with three seniors in the front seven who are better than LB Mauti, DT Jordan Hill and LB Gerald Hodges? Are there three players anywhere who better personify smart, dedicated, focused and talented?
So Penn State will win Saturday ... probably. 
Ohio State will be ready to play its best game of the season. Miller is a handful and then some. Meyer likely will have some special teams sleight-of-hand in his repertoire.
Meyer made his reputation on being thoroughly prepared for, and winning, big games. He's a big-game, big-stage guy. He'll bring his big game "A" game.
And while Penn State might be better, it's not by that much. The teams are evenly matched enough that Ohio State could overcome the home field advantage with a few breaks.
Also, there are those variables that can't be predicted and can tilt the outcome of close games. The weather and turnovers are the main ones. Sometimes turnovers are just bad luck. Then there are injuries. Just ask Iowa, which was attacked by the injury bug last week.
But know this: Penn State is better, Penn State is at home and Penn State should win.
And the Lions will deserve it. 

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