By GENARO C. ARMAS
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Big Ten won’t hand out a championship trophy to the winner of the Ohio State-Penn State game today (11:30 a.m., ABC), so bragging rights will have to do.
The ninth-ranked Buckeyes and surging Nittany Lions just might be the class of the conference at midseason, but neither team can win the league title or play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.
Saturday’s meeting then, has turned into a virtual midseason bowl game, complete with a national television audience and plenty of hype. About 107,000 rowdy fans are expected to pack Beaver Stadium, which would be the first sellout of the season.
Welcome to the “Ineligi-Bowl.”
“We only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times, 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “And we’re playing probably the best team in the Big Ten this week, with a great head coach in Urban Meyer.”
Two coaches in their first years at their respective, well-known programs saddled with NCAA sanctions.
Yet there are the undefeated Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0) and Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-0), playing another high-stakes conference game like nothing’s changed. First place in the Leaders Division is at stake.
“I assume it’s going to be, because it’s a night game, I’m sure the crowd will be nice,” senior tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner said tongue-in-cheek.
And yet so much has changed since the last time these two teams met, a 20-14 win for Penn State in Columbus last Nov. 19.
The Buckeyes then were led by interim coach Luke Fickell, who is now back coordinating the defense under Meyer.
That win was the one and only victory for Penn State for interim coach Tom Bradley, who took over a week earlier after longtime coach Joe Paterno was fired in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Bradley, the longtime defensive coordinator under Paterno, wasn’t retained when O’Brien was hired in January. Seven months later, a school already reeling from the aftereffects of the scandal was rocked again when the NCAA levied landmark penalties including a four-year bowl ban.
Ohio State has a one-year bowl ban for the memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal during former coach Jim Tressel’s tenure.
“I know there’s going to be some tough sanctions against them. I don’t really understand all of them,” Meyer said before talking about what he has had to study up on all week.
“Penn State has great football players right now.”
Especially on defense, where the veteran linebacking crew of Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson will be charged with keeping an eye on Buckeyes dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller — sore neck and all.
Miller appeared to be seriously hurt in last week’s 29-22 overtime win over Purdue, but returned to practice this week and seems to be fine. He’s listed as the starter again, and Meyer said he had no reservations about playing his Heisman Trophy candidate.
“If you ask me if it surprises me, no, Braxton Miller is a competitive guy,” Meyer said about his quarterback’s return. “Competitors fight through adversity.”
Penn State’s defense gets better every week, in large part because the Nittany Lions have clamped down on third downs. The “Linebacker U.” schemes are more aggressive this year, and the new-look offense installed by O’Brien is piling up points.
But Miller might be the best opposing player Penn State will face all season. He’s second in the league in total offense (292.9 yards per game) and fourth in rushing (119.9 yards).
“He’s a tremendous athlete who can create with any play,” Nittany Lions linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said. “We have to defend him every single play.”
Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin won’t be confused with Miller for his running ability, though the senior remarkably leads his team in rushing touchdowns (five) because of four goal-line sneaks.
Actually, McGloin has become better known as the savvy leader of a new Penn State system off to a smashing debut. His development from walk-on (a term McGloin disdains) to the top passer in the Big Ten (255.4 yards per game) is testament to O’Brien’s ability to tutor quarterbacks.
O’Brien, after all, did mentor Patriots quarterback Tom Brady while coordinating New England’s high-octane attack last year.
Like other players on both Ohio State and Penn State, McGloin is eager to prove his team belongs in the postseason — even if there’s no chance to get there because of the NCAA sanctions. Even if either team wins the Leaders Division, each school can’t play in the Big Ten title game because it counts as a postseason game.
They’ll have to make due with Saturday night.
“Ourselves, and Ohio State, we both deserve to get into a game like this,” McGloin said. “This is the reason you play college football.”