Because of the sanctions on both sides, the stakes would seem to be lower than ever. But Penn State especially can't look at it this way. Not with the team's biggest crowd of the season on hand. Not with dozens of high-profile recruits on the sideline.
If the Nittany Lions aspire to do more than just tread water over the next few seasons, this is perhaps their best chance to make a statement. That they can compete with the Big Ten elite and still have a top-shelf atmosphere to play in.
Bill O'Brien has publicly used attendance as a recruiting tool since the day after the sanctions came down. The figure he used would typically vary -- 100,000 fans, 105,000, 110,000 -- but it would always be over that magic 100k mark. Well, this will be the first chance for the Lions to actually hit six figures this season.
Winning would go a long way to getting more in November and beyond.
As Bill O'Brien was racking up all of those midseason coach of the year designations, one of the benchmarks that national pundits used to explain the pick was along the lines of Look how much he's gotten out of a quarterback like Matt McGloin. While there's no doubt that McGloin has benefitted tremendously from O'Brien (and new QB coach Charlie Fisher), the guy himself deserves a ton of credit. Work ethic is what set him apart from his competitors for the starting job and he has improved every week. His work against Iowa may have been the finest of his career. He has earned the mantle of best pocket passer in the Big Ten. But the Lions are facing the only other quarterback who can consistently take over a game and set the tone. Braxton Miller is ready to go by all reports and he will be the single toughest challenge Penn State has faced all season. Both quarterbacks should give their teams a strong chance to win in this one. EDGE: OSU
So that's what a healthy Bill Belton looks like. Despite his assertions, Belton simply was not at 100 percent as recently as the Northwestern game, and the coaches were wise to admit it and give him more time to rest. A limited outing against the Wildcats and then the off week was a huge plus for Belton, who promptly exploded for 100 yards and three touchdowns against Iowa. He was cutting well on his recovered ankle and his acceleration was back as well. Matt McGloin's success will continue to open holes. The big concern for the Lions here is ball security. Zach Zwinak lost two against Iowa and fumbling has been an issue in practice for Belton since the spring. Ohio State's top-10 national rushing offense is led by Braxton Miller but Carlos Hyde has proven to be a dependable back who has a nose for the end zone. Top backup Jordan Hall will miss the game with an injury, but the Buckeyes have largely done fine without him so far this year. EDGE: OSU
Great stat researched by Penn State sports info this week -- the Lions have 51 catches by tight ends through seven games, which actually leads the nation. No one in the Big Ten is even within 20 of that number. Four tight ends -- Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Matt Lehman and Garry Gilliam combined for 11 grabs against Iowa, racking up 151 yards and a score. That's more yards than PSU tight ends had through all 13 games of last season. Pretty incredible. James, a true freshman, caught his second touchdown and Carter made six catches -- including a spectacular fourth-down grab off of Micah Hyde's helmet for 85 yards. Allen Robinson seemed quiet by comparison and he still finished with six grabs and a score. Ohio State doesn't have a true gamebreaker at wideout this year, though both Devin Smith and Philly Brown have come up with some critical catches. The issue for both has been consistency, and drops have been a problem throughout the season. Tight end/H-back Jake Stoneburner has the size and speed a la Carter to give defenses fits. EDGE: PSU
It doesn't get much more imposing than this group of Buckeyes. And it doesn't get more imposing than 322-pound tackle Johnathan Hankins anchoring it. Hankins still has another year of eligibility after this, but he's a good bet to jmp to the pros after the season for a high slot in the draft. Penn State did a fine job against Illinois' big tackle, Akeem Spence, but Hankins is a step above. Add John Simon to the list of problems for PSU. Mike Zordich's former high school teammate in Youngstown is strong enough to play rush end and quick enough to move back to a standup role as the Buckeyes occassionally shift their defensive front, particularly in the red zone. But I would be negligent not to throw similar praise at Penn State's Jordan Hill, who is often underrated (by myself included) as a force in the middle. Maybe he's not as flashy as some of his predecessors, but that nine-tackle effort against Iowa was something to behold. Like Jared Odrick before him, Hill will be better appreciated by the coaches than the writers come Big Ten awards season. EDGE: OSU
If the Buckeyes have a true weak spot right now, it's here. There is no Hawk or Laurinaitis to lead the group this season and things have been dire at times because of injuries. Top LB Etienne Sabino remains out and he will be badly missed in this game. As it is, Ohio State uses a true freshman in Josh Perry and a veteran in Storm Klein who had to be reinstated to the team after legal issues, next to productive sophomore Ryan Shazier. Things were dire enough that the Bucks moved fullback Zach Boren over to split time at the middle spot midway through the year. Much of Penn State's gameplan on offense will undoubtedly focus on pressuring these linebackers with throws to tight ends and backs. Penn State's main concern is figuring out the best way to contain Braxton Miller and whether to use a spy for much of the game. The Lions have no shortage of candidates for the role and one imagines that sophomore Mike Hull will again have a shot to make an impact along with Mauti, Hodges and Carson. This group came up with two interceptions last week and will try to catch Miller confused with zone blitzes when possible. EDGE: PSU
Clearly if I'm mentioning how Penn State will try to attack Ohio State over the middle, Urban Meyer and his coaching staff realize this tenfold. But it's a tricky balancing act for the Buckeyes. Trying to take away the intermediate passes that carved up Iowa will make them more vulnerable to the deep ball. And Ohio State has given a surprising number of those this year -- namely a dozen plays of 40 yards or more. Ouch. That's what put the team in a hole last week against Purdue before the defense patched things up before it was too late. Starting corner Travis Howard has a pick-six of Matt McGloin on his resume, though that came two years ago. Not much has been said about Penn State's defensive backfield -- positive or negative -- recently because the opposing passing games have been terrible. All three Big Ten foes the Lions have faced rank in the triple digits -- Iowa is 101st, Illinois at 104 and Northwestern a hideous 110. Well Ohio State is tied with Iowa at No. 101 in the nation, but Braxton Miller's ability to extend plays means Penn State must be much more disciplined. EDGE: OSU
Just when Penn State finds a positive -- Sam Ficken hits a season-long kick, Jesse Della Valle nearly takes a kickoff all the way back -- the Lions find a way to lose the good vibes. Ficken had another kick blocked and Iowa scored on a 92-yard kickoff return. That checked off the last box this season for disaster for each special teams unit. And Penn State can't be feeling too good about this matchup, especially not after Ohio State saved its unbeaten record by blocking botha field goal and an extra point last week in a game that ended up going to overtime. Kick blocks have been something of a special for Urban Meyer-coached teams, going back to Utah and Bowling Green. Can't imagine Penn State will be trying many kicks in this game to begin with, but it's something the Lions have to be very wary of. Buckeyes kicker Drew Basil has had a steady career but has attempted just five field goals this year, hitting three. I don't think both teams can actually get away with not attempting a field goal all night, but Meyer and Bill O'Brien sure will try to pull it off. EDGE: OSU
How bizarre is it that Saturday's game will feature six different head coaches in the last three years of this series? Paterno vs. Tressel. Bradley vs. Fickell. O'Brien vs. Meyer. And what an unbelievable difference in philosophies to go from that first tandem to the one on the sidelines this year. Meyer's spread-option attack that has succeeded at four different schools and four different conference's. O'Brien's pro-style no-huddle scheme has been getting more sophisticated each week as his players get more comfortable with it. Both teams are short of their ideal talent levels for various reasons, but this one should still be fun to watch. This probably represents the Lions' best chance to beat the Bucks in the near future. Meyer, one of the top recruiters in the country, will soon stick up with athletes better tailored for his system. And Penn State will be operating with severe handicaps in that arena, beginning this February. But none of that matters on Saturday. What does matter is that the Lions figure to have one of their best crowds in recent memory against a Buckeyes team that has been inching closer and closer to a loss. Barring a rash of turnovers that hasn't hit the Lions yet this season, the offense should be able to score just enough to prevent Braxton Miller from snatching the win at the end. Regardless of the outcome, enjoy the game. Never know how many Grade-A atmospheres Penn State will get to host over the next few years, and this one should be memorable. EDGE: PSU
PREDICTION: PENN STATE 28, OHIO STATE 24