Penn State And Ohio State Showing Their Mettle

For the first time in more than 20 years, the Big Ten football conference is going to live up to its moniker. Thanks to the sanctions levied on Penn State and Ohio State, the 12-team Big Ten has been reduced to just 10 teams eligible for the second Big Ten Championship Game.

And wouldn't you know it, as the Ohio State Buckeyes travel to State College to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions this Saturday, there may not be two teams in the conference playing any better football right now than the besmirched top two teams in the Leaders Division.

Through eight weeks, only three teams remain undefeated in Big Ten play: ninth-ranked Ohio State, sitting at 4-0 in the conference and 8-0 overall; 20th-ranked Michigan, sitting at 3-0 in the Big Ten and 5-2 overall; and Penn State, also 3-0 in the conference and 5-2 overall following its most impressive outing of the season in Iowa City.

As good as Michigan has been following tough losses to Alabama and Notre Dame, Denard Robinson isn't putting on the kind of the show he has the past few seasons. In fact, he's getting the Big Ten headlines stolen from the likes of fellow signal-callers Matt McGloin and Braxton Miller, the two men who will square off at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Happy Valley (assuming Miller is ready to go).

It's kind of ironic when you think about it. The two hottest teams in the conference, the two that have arguably been the most fun to watch in recent weeks, are the two that were supposed to be cast aside and forgotten about. Next year is supposed to be Ohio State's year, with the postseason ban lifted, Urban Meyer's system firmly entrenched and Braxton Miller set for a run at the Heisman, as the Buckeyes were supposed to use 2012 as a building block for 2013. For Penn State, it was supposed to be a difficult season, one that focused more on moving forward and forgetting the past than competing for a top spot in the conference. It was Bill O'Brien's job to start laying a new foundation for a fallen program.

Only nobody told Penn State and Ohio State they were supposed to follow the script. Or if they did, the Buckeyes and Lions simply weren't having any of it.

Everyone knew Ohio State was going to be good, that Urban Meyer was going to put his stamp on the program and do what he's done everywhere: win. But with the scholarship restrictions and the postseason ban, it was thought the Buckeyes may be a year away from really breaking out. Now, they're one of only a handful of undefeated teams remaining the country, cracking the top 10 and putting up offensive numbers that are eye-popping — even if the victories haven't always been pretty.

While the Buckeyes are not the stout defensive team they've been over the years, they possess one of the most potent offenses in football. Led by sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and his talented receivers Corey Brown and Devin Smith, the Buckeyes are averaging 39 points a game and have scored a conference-leading 43 touchdowns. And they're doing it with amazing balance, averaging 249.6 yards per game on the ground while having the second-highest passing efficiency — 136.8 — in the conference.

It's a testament to Meyer and his system, no doubt, but none of this would be possible without Miller, who right now is fourth in the Big Ten with 959 yards rushing, fourth in pass efficiency and second only to Denard Robinson in total offense. At this point, there may not be a more terrifying attack or a more electrifying player in the Big Ten than Ohio State and Braxton Miller.

As for Penn State, the turnaround for this team has been nothing short of remarkable. After starting the season 0-2 with a home loss to Ohio and a heart-breaking one-point loss at Virginia in a game that included four missed field goals and a blocked extra point, it would have been easy for the Nittany Lions to tuck their tails and give up. After all, no one expected much from a team decimated by sanctions and departures, and no one would have blamed these college kids if they decided things were just a little too tough to overcome.

Instead, the team has rebounded with five straight victories, highlighted with a come-from-behind victory against Northwestern and capped off with the destruction of recent nemesis Iowa in Iowa City this past Saturday. Led by new coach Bill O'Brien, this version of Penn State looks nothing like the ones of years past. The offense is dynamic and bold, eschewing tradition and going for it at all times. There isn't a fourth down out there that you can call an automatic kick or punt with this team, and the offense has been so diverse and creative that high school players everywhere must be salivating at the prospect of playing in a similar scheme.

O'Brien's enthusiasm, desire and expertise have rubbed off on the entire team, from the offense to the defense. Matt McGloin is undeniably the most improved player in the conference, leading the Big Ten in passing yards per game, second in total yards (though playing one less game than Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell), and has 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He's transformed into one of the best and most reliable quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and suddenly has an offense that was inept the past two seasons looking like a well-oiled machine. Bill O'Brien has made his impact felt already; the evolution of Matt McGloin is proof of that.

And O'Brien's exciting offense is complimented by a defense that is as good as any in the land. Penn State is holding opponents to just 15.7 points per game and is among the top teams in college football in rushing defense. It's all thanks to two of the best defensive players in the conference: seniors Jordan Hill and Mike Mauti.

Mauti is the heart and soul of Penn State, the most vocal player this offseason determined to keep the team together. He's emerged as perhaps the best linebacker in the Big Ten this year, already winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice, including being named National Defensive Player of the Week one of those times. And Hill is another in the long line of Penn State defensive linemen that defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. has developed. Hill, fresh off his own Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award following his dominance against Iowa, gives every offensive lineman he faces fits.

Of course, Ohio State has its own defensive standout, as it always does, with sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier, which should set up the type of exciting match-up there was back when Bobby Carpenter and A.J. Hawk were competing with Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor for linebacker supremacy during my college days.

On Saturday, these two sullied teams will go out and continue playing for both pride and recognition. Walking into Beaver Stadium will be the two top teams in the Leaders Division, teams that have some of the best players in the conference to date. Matt McGloin and Braxton Miller will be the focal points, but both teams have so much more. There are dynamos at wide out, with sophomore Allen Robinson leading the way for Penn State and the duo of Devin Smith and Corey Brown giving Miller some stout targets. Mauti and Hill will try to contain Miller and company, while Shazier and his mates look to control McGloin and the tight-end-heavy Penn State offense.

It will be a battle reminiscent of the Big Ten clashes of yesteryear. The two hottest teams in the Big Ten, Penn State and Ohio State, will lay it all out on the line Saturday, just as they have all season long. No amount of sanctions or restrictions can take away what these players have accomplished already, and there are no signs that either is about to let its school down.

No matter what happens in Beaver Stadium Saturday, one things if for sure: Ohio State and Penn State may have taken their blows, but both are still standing tall as ever.

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