With Eyes on MNC Berth, Penn State Looks to Break Another Losing Streak

mike princeCorrespondent IOctober 21, 2008

-Mike Prince, Sportswriter

Nine losses in 12 seasons plagued Penn State all offseason up until this past weekend.  That was the losing streak that the Lions had endured to Michigan before finally beating them this past weekend, 46-17.

Now, all that is history.

Seven losses in seven visits to the Horseshoe for the Lions since they joined the Big Ten in 1993.

Can Penn State end two of their biggest losing streaks two weeks in a row this Saturday when they visit Columbus, OH and take on Big Ten-rival Ohio State?

Joe Paterno certainly hopes so.  And what the legendary would normally tell people who ask him about the losing streak is that "It is in the past.  I want to focus on this week."

And that's exactly what the Nittany Lions plan on doing when they take their number-three ranking into the 'Shoe and take on the 7-1 Buckeyes.

The last time that Penn State beat Ohio State was in 2005 when one of the biggest audiences in television history watched the Lions stay undefeated with a 17-10 win over the Buckeyes.  Since then, PSU has lost two straight to OSU, but those were completely different teams than this year.

Penn State is coming off of two huge wins and are 8-0 for the first time this decade.  They are ranked third in all three major polls (AP, USA Today, BCS) and are tied for first in the Big Ten.  Ohio State on the other hand, is ranked 10th in the nation and comes in with one loss already under their belts.  This game may prove to decide the Big Ten winner, but the game has even bigger implications for the Lions: The National Championship.

Penn State has not been in the National Championship game since the 1986 season, when they beat the heavily favored Miami Hurricanes by a score of 14-10.  Since then, Penn State has gone through its ups and downs, but possibly no season has had the possibilities that 2008 has since Penn State went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl during the '94 season.

Penn State has already proved that their defense can play with anyone and is one of the best in the nation, but this Saturday night, they will have the toughest test they have faced all season.  Terrelle Pryor and Chris "Beanie" Wells.

Pryor, the true freshman quarterback who started the season as the backup to senior Todd Boeckman, was the most sought-out recruit in the nation this past year and has not disappointed his critics.  He has shown that with his dual-threat ability to throw the ball, run the ball and use the option, he will be a definite Heisman candidate for years to come.  With Wells in the backfield, Ohio State has a dual threat that would be tough for any defense in the nation to stop.

The Lions will have to do one main thing to win this game.  Stop the run early.  In previous games against Illinois and Michigan, both of which are teams that have quarterbacks who can run, PSU got off to a slow start, while letting their opponents run up big plays and get on the scoreboard first.

This week, Penn State can not fall too far behind the Buckeyes because, well, they are in a different class than their previous opponents.

Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick and Navarro Bowman have all been playing like All-Americans this season, as has Maurice Evans when he has gotten playint time, and their success this Saturday will be the deciding factor in who wins this nationally televised matchup.  If Penn State's front-seven can stop Wells and Pryor, then Penn State should be able to use their offensive weapons to take care of the Buckeyes.

One of those offensive weapons is Daryll Clark.

If you asked 10 impartial college football fans before the season started, nine of them would probably say that they would rather have Pryor taking the snaps for their team than Clark.  If you ask those same 10 people today, you can bet that a majority of them would now take Clark at the present moment.

And not to take anything away from Pryor.  He has been playing "as advertised" if not better.  But Pryor is still getting used to his offense.  He is still learning to read defenses.  He is still maturing.  He still needs to learn how to throw the ball into coverage.  With Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline at wideout, he has had some help though.  But Pryor still has a ways to go before he is as good as he can be.

And that is the scary part.

Good thing for Penn State this weekend is that it is not his time yet.  Pryor may be the most dangerous player in the country in short time, but not this Saturday.

For Penn State, Clark has led this team to an undefeated mark thus far with his surprising play in the pocket.  He has gone from a preseason dual-threat quarterback to a "pocket passer" with the added ability to run the option and use his legs to keep defenses guessing.  Clark has used his bulky size to break tackles and his athleticism to run the option with two outstanding tailbacks behind him.

Clark has put up impressive numbers, including a 63.3 percent completion percentage as well as having the highest quarterback rating for anyone in the Big Ten.  Behind him, Penn State has put up 45.5 points per game, tops in the Big Ten and seventh in the nation.  He has also accounted for 19 of Penn State's touchdowns this year (11 passing, eight rushing), while only turning the ball over two times.

Behind Clark is Evan Royster.  While Wells was a preseason Heisman candidate, perhaps the only people who knew how good Royster actually was were Paterno, his coaching staff and Penn State's fans.  After a solid season sharing the ball with Rodney Kinlaw last year, Royster has put up excellent numbers, average 7.7 yards per carry (compared to 6.1 for Wells) while putting the ball in the endzone 10 times.  He put up 174 yards on just 18 carries last week, scored a touchdown, and added 13 yards receiving.

Royster and Clark's talent have not gone unnoticed, and neither have the other main reason for their sucess: Penn State's offensive-line.  With players such as AQ Shipley and Stefan Wisniewski, Paterno has put possible the best offensive-line that he has endured in 43 seasons on the field in 2008.

This line has given Clark all the time he needs to find his targets.  It has opened up enough holes for Royster to average nearly a first down every time he touches the ball.  It has turned Clark into "the next Michael Robinson" into a quarterback that has enough time to convince himself or anybody watching that he can be a pro-style quarterback.

And while they have proven themselves week in and week out since the "first test" of the season versus Illinois, this weekend's game will prove once and for all if these guys have what it takes to be the best.

Clark, Royster, Williams, and Butler.  Pryor, Wells, Hartline and Robiskie.  Both teams have weapons, but Penn State has the tools and talent on the offensive and defensive-lines to show the Buckeyes who the new team to beat is in the Big Ten.

With the ongoing outstanding play of Evans, Bowman and Maybin, as well as the new placement of highly-touted freshman linebacker Michael Mauti, look for Penn State to learn from their previous mistakes and try and shut down the Buckeyes early.

If Penn State can get an early score and keep Ohio State out of scoring position early, they should win this game somewhat convincingly.  While the game should go down to the final quarter, Penn State could win this game by two scores if they win the turnover battle.

Last week's prediction was a 29-point win for Penn State, and that was EXACTLY right.

This week's prediction: Penn State 26, Ohio State 16.