Big Ten previews: Lions get bowl-like setting vs. Buckeyes

Big Ten previews: Lions get bowl-like setting vs. Buckeyes
October 24, 2013, 11:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

Penn State won 10 games last season and didn't go to a bowl game. The Nittany Lions will likely reach the six-win plateau this season, but that won't send them to a bowl game either.

But head coach Bill O'Brien is treating this week's matchup with Ohio State as his team's bowl game this season.

Penn State, of course, is in the middle of a four-year bowl ban, one of many punishments following the scandal involving the previous regime in State College, so the postseason is not in the cards for O'Brien's team. So a trip to Columbus to take on the No. 4 Buckeyes is going to have to do when it comes to this season's biggest game for the Lions.

"Ohio State, 100,000 people in the stands, in the Horseshoe," O'Brien said on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches conference call, "I don't know too many bowl games that are better than that, other than the National Championship Game."

[MORE: Iowa in its own funk heading into tilt with Northwestern]

The Lions' last win came in another game that shared a similar atmosphere to college football's grandest stage, as more than 100,000 people were going nuts during Penn State's four-overtime win against Michigan in Happy Valley.

But the challenge will be continuing the momentum established in that huge victory, something made a bit more difficult because the Lions are coming off a bye week. Throw in the fact that Ohio State is one of the nation's top teams, and the Lions have their work cut out for them when it comes to containing playmakers like quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.

"It's a very difficult challenge playing a guy like Braxton Miller, in my opinion one of the top five players in the country, a really good football player who has improved immensely since he's been in the system," O'Brien said in his weekly press conference Tuesday. "Last year was his first year in the system. Now I think he's got great grasp of this system. He's throwing the ball well. I thought they played real well offensively against Iowa. And, like you said, if he gets outside the pocket, he's a dangerous guy. Sometimes those things are going to happen. We've got to play hard and play with great effort and do the best we can to keep him in there, and when he gets out, we have to make sure that we understand our rules, our scramble rules when he gets out."

[RELATED: Northwestern's Colter: 'I'll play' Saturday vs. Iowa]

And that bowl-game atmosphere awaiting Penn State on Saturday is another thing that could flummox the Lions. True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been arguably the conference's top QB so far this season, but he's yet to play in such a challenging environment as he will in Columbus.

"I think he focuses on his assignments," O'Brien said. "That's the thing I like about big games, big stadiums. I mean, you're playing Ohio State in the Horseshoe. That's a great opportunity for everybody. But, I think when the game starts, everybody involved is really just focused on the game, not the 90,000 people, 100,000 people that are sitting in the stands. You have to deal with the noise and things like that, but you're just very focused on what your job is on that play and on the next play and on the next play. I think that's probably what he thinks about quite a bit."

How can O'Brien help his young quarterback prepare?

"What are you going to do? You can't put 90,000 people around your practice field, cheering against you," the coach said. "So I think it comes down to his preparation, his focus, his own demeanor. I'd say to this point he's handled himself pretty well. It's not easy to play in front of the home crowd, 108,000 here at Penn State. It's not easy to do that as an 18-year-old freshman. I think it comes down to being focused and just knowing the game plan and knowing how we want to play against Ohio State."

The Lions and Buckeyes kickoff at 7 p.m. on ABC.

[MORE: Illini offense looks better, but No. 1 defense up next]

All Big Ten games on Saturday, Oct. 26. (Bye weeks: Indiana, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin)

Northwestern at Iowa, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. Both the Wildcats and the Hawkeyes are in the middle of Big Ten losing streaks, with Northwestern dropping three in a row and Iowa losing two straight. Both offenses have gone stagnant in the second half in those losses, and so the final 30 minutes figure to be the ones that decide the game Saturday. Quarterback Kain Colter returns to the Wildcats offense, which has been lifeless in his absence during the majority of the game at Wisconsin and the entirety of last week's game vs. Minnesota, and his return figures to breath some life into that unit. The Northwestern defense has given up big days on the ground in those three losses, too, with opposing backs going over 100 yards in each Big Ten game. That could be good news for the Iowa running back duo of Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock.

No. 24 Nebraska at Minnesota, 11 a.m., ESPN. The Gophers are coming off their biggest win of the season, toppling Northwestern in Evanston last week. Though it was a strong effort, it was a bevy of Northwestern mistakes and overall offensive ineffectiveness that was the key in that game. Nebraska, though still hazy on the status of quarterback Taylor Martinez, has been experiencing the kind of offensive explosiveness that Northwestern thought it was going to get vs. Minnesota. Huskers running back Ameer Abdullah is the Big Ten's second-leading rusher, with 136 yards per game. Add in some dangerous receivers in Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, and Nebraska's offense should be just fine regardless of Martinez's participation.

[RELATED: Fitzgerald looking for better effort from Northwestern]

Michigan State at Illinois, 2:30 p.m., ABC. Illinois staged a bit of an uprising with its passing game last week vs. Wisconsin, but it wasn't enough to put up much of a fight against a strong Badgers defense. Unfortunately for the Illini offense, an even tougher defense is coming to Champaign this week, when Michigan State's nation-best D arrives. The Spartans figure to continue imposing their defensive dominance, which has resulted in 13.6 points per game and 228 yards per game for opponents. Though the offense found the end zone just once last week vs. Purdue, the defense scored a touchdown on a fumble return and posted the program's first shutout of a Big Ten opponent in this century.