The Nittany Lions (2-1) are 0-6 in Columbus since joining the Big Ten in 1993 and are listed as 17-point underdogs.
Ohio State (3-0) head coach Jim Tressel addressed a number of topics at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
First up, Tressel explained the shake-up on OSU's offensive line. Sophomore Steve Rehring is now the starter at left guard and senior Tim Schafer is listed as the top backup at left tackle. The Buckeyes will continue to play at least 10 offensive linemen per game to keep everyone fresh.
"Well, both Schaf and Steve Rehring have to be ready to play tackle and they have to be ready to play guard," Tressel said. "And what we've been trying to do the last two weeks is make sure we even get a series for the entire second offensive line so they've been in there and they've been under duress and maybe even upgraded their preparation knowing that, ‘Hey, I'm going to be out there.'
"So, we're trying to become as deep as we can. We're trying to become as fresh as we can. But, yeah, Alex Boone is fine and we need to rotate people around so that when you get into this grinder called the Big Ten, and especially the other factor involved is now you're in a 12-game season that's 12 straight weeks and we think that's important to build that depth and those experiences. And the other problem you have, I think, is you have less plays, and so if you don't force yourself to substitute some, you're going to turn around, the game's going to be over and you won't have had as many plays as you'd like. So, I think you add all those things up and it's why we've done what we've done."
Penn State's defense has been tough against the run this year, but has been hurt in the passing game. Tressel was asked if he feels like the Buckeyes will need to pass well to win the game.
"Well, one thing about Penn State, all the way back from the beginning of time is they're going to have eight up in the box if you're in the standard formation," he said. "And they're going to get a ninth guy up there once they see where the ball's going. If you spread them out, they're still going to have one more hat in the box than you have blockers, that's just the nature of the way they've played it. It's the nature of the way we've played defense. The number one goal our defense is to make it difficult to run, that's the same from their standpoint, and most certainly, I don't think anyone will line up and just run the football and be successful against Penn State, us included."
Penn State and Michigan are the two teams that OSU plays every year. Of course Michigan will always be OSU's big rival, but the Penn State rivalry has also picked up steam in recent seasons.
"We've had some great games," Tressel said. "I think it's so natural because we're contiguous and it's so natural from a rivalry standpoint. A lot of guys have played against each other in the Big 33 game and we have some good Pennsylvania guys, they have some good Ohio guys. It's natural. Two of the great programs historically in the nation. We've had some great games and they're always physical, they're always clean, they're always tough. They're like what rivalries should be all about. There's no question, it's going to be an every-year thing forever."
And you can't talk about Penn State without mentioning legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Tressel has a tremendous amount of respect for the man.
"I think anytime that you have one of the legendary people in the game, associated with the game, it adds something to it," Tressel said. "I was looking at some of the… I think Joe's played against us almost 20 times. That's incredible. And his history and his knowledge and his expectations for his players, his ability to see because of his vast experience of what they need to do to get better, Joe Paterno is one of the great ones and he does make the game even… if you can make it even tougher than it is, he makes it tougher."
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith has not thrown an interception in his last 152 passes. It's a streak that dates back to the Northwestern game last year and no one is pleased more than Tressel.
"I think the first thing that a quarterback needs to do to begin a streak like that is to first believe how important it is for us to take care of the football," he said. "And Troy is very careful about our football. And he knows that the impact of us losing our football on the whole team is significant. So it starts with a belief in its importance. And then it comes down to a knowledge of what we're doing and what they're doing. And where I think he's really grown is we play against all different schemes of defenses, and he studies them hard.
"Cincinnati's defense is very dissimilar from Penn State's defense conceptually. There are some similarities, but just in general, you wouldn't say that it's a similar style defense. And Troy will know the difference by the time he has that ball in his hand in the game, because he's committed himself to that. And of course he knows more and more about what we're doing, and there's got to be a little luck, a little good fortune when you have a streak of any kind, but he believes it's important and he's very careful with the ball."
Tressel explained exactly what he wants out of his quarterbacks.
"We talk about three things," he said. "If our quarterback can make good decisions for the team, have no turnovers, and then make big plays, that's what we need. Now, there are 500 other little things we want him to do, but if he'll do those three, and Troy Smith has demonstrated he can do those three things, now he has to continue to demonstrate it against a good defense like Penn State."
Tressel also gave an injury update and the Buckeyes are in very good shape health-wise three weeks into the season.
"Roy Hall was maybe 85 percent last week and maybe played 10 snaps," Tressel said. "He's probably up to 95 percent now and exactly how many snaps he'll play, I wouldn't even venture to throw a number out, but I'm hoping it will be significant. Plus, don't forget the special units that he adds to the depth and so forth.
"About the only guy that we'll miss this week will be Todd Boeckman. He rolled his ankle. Someone fell on him as he was falling and it didn't even happen really in the course of a play, but he was falling and the play kind of ended and someone fell. So we probably won't have Todd. Outside of that, Roy will be back healthier. Everyone else is doing fine."
Tressel also announced the Buckeyes' players of the week. They included: tailback Antonio Pittman (offense), defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock (defense), kicker Aaron Pettrey (special teams), linebacker James Laurinaitis (attack force), Rehring (Jim Parker offensive lineman), Ted Ginn Jr. (Jack Tatum hit of the week), offensive lineman Andrew Moses (scout team offense), cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (scout team defense) and De'Angelo Haslem (scout team special teams).
The Players' Take
Ohio State defensive tackle David Patterson is looking forward to strapping it up against a familiar foe on Saturday. He's played against Penn State three times and feels like he knows the Nittany Lions fairly well.
"It's a great game because we play them every year and I get a feel for those guys and they get a feel for us and it's kind of like Michigan week," Patterson said. "By the time we get to Michigan week and watch film we pretty much know their schemes and kind of know their plays. Penn State, they've changed a few things, but we know their concept. They're a hard-nosed football team and you look forward to testing yourself against the best and Penn State is definitely one of the best programs in the country."
Patterson thinks it's always special going up against an icon like Paterno. And Patterson even recalled a humorous story when PSU was recruiting him in high school.
"Well, you don't think about him during the game, but you see the interviews through the week when you watch TV," Patterson said. "Coach Paterno is a legend. Anybody like me… I'm just a football fan and it's an honor to be playing against a coach that is great as Coach Paterno.
"I remember when I was getting recruited in high school and one day somebody told me that Coach Paterno was down in the office to see me. So, I run down to the office because I'm all excited to meet Coach Paterno, but it wasn't him, it was his son (Jay Paterno). I wasn't upset, but I was a big college football fan and I really wanted to meet him because he was a legend. So, it's always adds something when you're going up against a legend."
Ohio State's students begin classes this week and the student body will be out in full force for the Penn State game. According to various e-mails sent to Bucknuts.com, there is even an OSU student group that is trying to organize a "red out Penn State" movement in response to the "white out" in State College last year.
Pitcock is hoping the 12th man will be a big factor in the game this week.
"It's very exciting, I think," Pitcock said. "Playing at Penn State was difficult. They do have a great fan section and we feel like we have one of the best fans in the land too. We're really looking forward to them backing us up 100 percent. We have great fan support."
Pitcock is coming off arguably the best performance of his college career with three sacks against Cincinnati. Pitcock is known more as a guy who stops the run, controls the line of scrimmage and lets other guys run around and make plays. But last Saturday, he was the playmaker.
"I really don't know. I don't know what came over me," Pitcock said. "I was just able to get off the blocks and react to the pass and get in the backfield."
Patterson thinks that Pitcock is an underrated pass rusher and could lead OSU in sacks this season.
"He's talking me up," Pitcock said with a laugh. "I still feel Dave is a better pass-rusher than me. Maybe it's one of those things that we look up to each other and have that little competition that we don't talk about."
Tressel began his weekly media sessions with the Tuesday afternoon Big Ten coaches teleconference. Tressel began with a statement about his team's 33-7 win over Cincinnati.
"That's always a tough one for us because that whole coaching staff either played here or coached with us or coached by some of our coaches," he said. "It's always a tough one because they know us well and play with tremendous passion. They did a good job and in fact got up on us after the first quarter. I thought our guys did a good job keeping their poise and taking care of business from a standpoint of improving. We would have liked to improve a little more than we did. After three games, we know what lies ahead in the Big Ten conference starting with the Nittany Lions, and we look forward to beginning Big Ten play."
"The biggest thing I like about Penn State is they're smart football players," Tressel said. "They know exactly why they're doing what they're doing. Defensively, offensively, on the special teams, they're extremely well-schooled. Usually at a place like Penn State, you really have to earn your spurs to get into the lineup which means you really have to have an awareness on how things are done.
"Then on top of that, I think they have as good of skill as anyone in the country in their return men and receivers and backs and the folks that have great speed. They remind you of the people that have great speed like Michigan, Michigan State, and so many of the good people in our conference that have outstanding speed guys. So with great discipline and great intelligence and they're very physical -- everyone knows Penn State's as physical as it gets. Add that burst of speed -- they're a very, very good football team."
One difference between this year's matchup and last year's is Ohio State coming in ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. But Tressel says that the team has not been focused in rankings.
"We don't talk about it at all because really those polls don't mean a whole bunch," he said. "The thing we talk about is the difficulty and the challenge of beginning Big Ten play with the reigning co-champions. Everyone knows when Ohio State and Penn State get together it's a great football game and it's always tough. It's always dependent on a couple of plays here and there. So we really haven't had any time to talk about things like polls and so forth. We're awfully busy trying to get better."
"I think the evolution as a player, he has a greater understanding of how to approach various defenses and various schemes," he said. "Of course our coaching staff is very interested in getting Ted Ginn the ball. We think if we get Ted Ginn the ball enough he is going to get into the end zone. I really think he has grown day by day for the last couple of years as a receiver. He loves playing it and we hope we get it in his hands."
Pettrey, meanwhile, seems to have a hold on the starting kicking job.
"Aaron's done a nice job," he said. "He's improved. I still think he has a ways to go, just kind of like our football team. Our football team currently has a good record but we have a long way to go, and Aaron is kind of in the same way. It was good for him to hit a couple over 40 the other day and drive his kickoffs the way he did. Our second kicker, Ryan Pretorius, hit a 52-yarder and drove his kickoff into the end zone, so we feel like both young guys are getting better, but both guys need to get significantly better if we're going to have a chance to contend."
Tressel was asked if Pretorius might see more time or if Pettrey had a solid hold on the spot.
"Aaron, beginning with our second game, became our starting kicker," he said. "The way the game unfolded in game three, there was an opportunity to get Ryan some work there. He had proven in practice the past week that he deserved it. The thing I like about Ryan is that when Aaron was named as the starting kicker in week two, it's not like he fell apart. He kept working on his fundamentals and that showed that he had a good week of practice and he had a chance to have some attempts in the game. In the Big Ten conference you don't get a chance to play as many players as you do in your out-of-Big Ten games. For the moment, Aaron Pettrey will have the opportunities but what I like to see is that Ryan continues to work and get better."
For Nicol, this week's game might carry extra meaning as he hails from the state of Pennsylvania. Tressel talked about Nicol's progress since coming to Ohio State.
"We've been very pleased with Rory," he said. "We thought he was going to be a good one when he played some as a true freshman in a backup role, and then he had an injury last year that kept him out the whole year and kept him out of a little development practice-wise and so forth. Then he came on and had a solid spring. I thought his preseason has been good. His understanding of what we need from that position keeps getting better. He's a very talented kid. He's not only a good blocker but he's a very capable receiver. We've been pleased with how Rory's come along."
Tressel was then asked if the fact that Nicol came from a smaller program played any role in his recruitment and how Ohio State approaches similar situations.
"He comes from a part of the world that football is very important -- Beaver, Pennsylvania -- football is engrained in the culture there," Tressel said. "If you look at them historically, it's been a good football program. They may not have had the best record at the moment that he was playing, but football has been a part of his upbringing in his life right there in the shadows of the Steelers and the Pitt Panthers and across the state line from the Browns, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame's probably an hour and a half away. Football's a part of what Rory Nicol's about. So it doesn't matter what size school or how many games they win, if you find a talented young man with good character and good academics who happens to be 6-6, I think it's a good bet."
Later in the conference, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno spoke some on this week's game with Ohio State. Paterno voiced his excitement with coming to play in Columbus this week.
"We've had some good experiences and some bad experiences," he said. "We've had some good wins there going back to the Pete Johnson days and earlier. It's a great football situation. The crowd's great, they're in the game. They've had good football teams, well-coached, and we've had our problems there. It's just a great place to go and play. We look forward to going there.
"We may not have had as much luck as you'd like to have, but that's because the other guy's been pretty darn good. It's just one of the things that makes college football a great situation -- the crowd, the tradition, the young guys. Ohio State kids play good tough football with no shenanigans, which is a great credit to Jimmy. We're looking forward to going out there and playing them."
One of Penn State's many challenges in this week's game is handling Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. Paterno discussed Smith's improvement since becoming the starter.
"He played a lot of big games and had success," Paterno said. "He's confident. He anticipates some throws a little quicker. He doesn't force the ball. He does some of the things a polished quarterback does that he may not have done consistently earlier (in his career).
"He's obviously a much, much better passer, polished, makes better decisions. He's always had a strong arm; no one ever questioned his being able to throw the ball. It was a question of whether he could do the things a big time college quarterback has to do in way of the passing game and not just take off and run. He's not running around as much probably because he doesn't have to."
Last year's game between Ohio State and Penn State was a defensive struggle. This year's Ohio State defense looks a lot different on paper than the unit that played in Happy Valley last year, but Paterno sees many of the same things on the field.
"I don't see much difference," he said. "They've done such a good job recruiting and a couple kids, Pitcock and Patterson -- guys like that that we've seen a couple of years and frankly tried to recruit some of them -- and No. 33 (James Laurinaitis) played last year. I remember looking at the Michigan-Ohio State tape and the Notre Dame-Ohio State tape and saying to the staff 'Who's 33?' He's a really good football player. They run well, they're coached well, they adjust well. They line up very intelligent football players.
"It didn't surprise me that they were going to be good -- they are good. There's not much difference between this defense and the one they had last year."
For Ohio State, one player they will have to contain is wide receiver Derrick Williams, who has always been known as a jack-of-all-trades on the football field. Paterno talked about the decision to test Williams's passing ability last weekend against Youngstown State.
"We did some of that last year with Derrick until he got hurt," he said. "Derrick's a kid that can do a lot of different things. He's an outstanding wideout, but he can throw the ball; he was a good high school quarterback. We've tried to get him in the game, tried to get him to do as many things as we think he can handle."