STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Undefeated Ohio State wants to feel some love. After all, it is the No. 1 team in the country.
Yet there’s a sentiment among some Buckeyes that they aren’t getting much respect, something that could change with a win tonight at No. 24 Penn State.
“It’s become more motivating to us because a lot of people think we don’t deserve the spot,” cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. “That’s just another thing we can put on our bulletin board and get fired up for. It’s been quite a motivation for us.”
There’s reason to worry in this topsy-turvy college football season.
The Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) were ranked 11th in the preseason poll, but the teams ahead of them have fallen. Losses two weeks ago by LSU and California cleared room atop the polls and Bowl Championship Series standings for the Buckeyes.
“We’re glad to be there,” fullback Tyler Whaley said. “But at the same time, whether people believe we are No. 1 or not, we have to get out week-in and week-out and prove it.”
A suffocating defense that has allowed just four touchdowns all season offers plenty of proof. It’s a big reason why Ohio State could tie the Big Ten record of 19 straight conference victories, set by Michigan from 1990-92.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno gave the Buckeyes plenty of deference.
“We’ve got to play the football we know how to play. And if somebody happens to be as good as Ohio State, you hope you can compete with them,” Paterno said. “Whether you can or you can’t, you never know until you play. But they’re a fine football team.”
The Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-2) can be dangerous, too, especially at home and coming off a three-game winning streak in which they have averaged 33.6 points.
The offense is clicking behind an improving offensive line that has been opening up running lanes for tailbacks Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster. Pocket quarterback Anthony Morelli is getting time to connect with his deep, talented receiving corps.
They’ll face their stiffest challenge yet with an Ohio State defense that has held opponents to a measly 7.8 points a game — tops in the country.
“You got to be very fundamentally sound on the offensive side to be able to compete with them,” Penn State center A.Q. Shipley said. “They do a heck of a job staying low, locked down and getting to the ball.”
Swarming to the ball is something Penn State does well, too. Their defense is eager to atone for last week’s subpar performance, when they allowed 31 points to Indiana’s spread attack and athletic quarterback Kellen Lewis.
Two of the country’s best middle linebackers, Penn State’s Dan Connor and Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis, figure to put on a show in what may well turn into a good ol’ Big Ten defensive slugfest.
A likely sellout crowd of 108,000 or so raucous fans, including the 21,000 in the student section expected to wear all white under the bright lights, could give Penn State another edge.
“We know it’s a big game playing the top team in the country. To play it at home in front of our fans is going to be an advantage for us,” Connor said. “At the same time, it’ll come down to playing football.”
Penn State also called for a “whiteout” for their last home game against the Buckeyes, a 17-10 win in 2005. That was the last time Ohio State lost a regular-season game.
“There isn’t too much you can do about the noise,” Ohio State receiver Brian Robiskie said. “We’ve just got to do a good job of focusing on not being able to hear the quarterback ... and focus more on signals.”
If they can overcome the distractions and win, Ohio State would strengthen its case as a legitimate No. 1 team.
The Buckeyes debuted atop the polls last week by racing out to a 24-0 lead at home before the offense coughed up turnovers on consecutive series that led to scores by Michigan State. Ohio State’s defense held for a 24-17 victory.
The schedule doesn’t get easier after Penn State, with home games against Wisconsin and Illinois the next two weeks followed by the annual season-ending rivalry game with Michigan at the Big House.
“I know all the teams that we play certainly show great respect, all the teams that we interact with,” Tressel said when asked about his players discussing a lack of respect.
“But again, there’s 120 teams out there and some people think some are better than others,” he added. “That’s part of the fun of debating about all of that stuff.”
AP sportswriter Rusty Miller in Columbus contributed to this report.
WHO: Ohio State at Penn State
TIME: 8 o’clock
WHERE: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
TV/RADIO: Channel 5; WEOL 930-AM; WKNR 850-AM
BUCKEYE BUZZ: Ohio State quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels first met then-Penn State assistant coach Joe Paterno in 1964.
Daniels, who was from Western Pennsylvania, had just graduated from Slippery Rock when he was invited to work at Penn State’s summer quarterbacks camp.
Paterno was asked this week why Jim Tressel was such a good coach at Ohio State. He credited a fine coaching staff, including “kids like Joey Daniels.”
“I like that. I like that ‘kids’ part,” the 65-year-old Daniels said.
When it was pointed out that the 80-year-old Paterno is older than almost everyone and everything, Daniels cracked Paterno was older than dirt.
“But don’t tell him I said that,” he said with a laugh.
LOS CAPITANES: Ohio State’s defensive game captain for Penn State is DT Vernon Gholston. The honorary captain is Mike Tomczak, who quarterbacked the Buckeyes from 1982-84 before playing 16 seasons in the NFL.
MANO A MANO: One wag in the sportswriting corps suggested that to save money, the teams just send their radio color announcers to meet at a neutral site, say Youngstown, and have them go head to head to determine who wins the game.
It wouldn’t be a bad matchup. Former Steelers LB Jack Ham does the Nittany Lions games on radio, while Ohio State has former Redskins OT Jim Lachey.
TRAVELING BAND: The Buckeyes met at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at 12:45 p.m. and then bused to Rickenbacker International Airport where they departed at 2 p.m.
The team declined a walkthrough of Beaver Stadium on Friday night, but is set to make a brief look-around between 11:30 and 11:45 this morning.
The flight plan calls for the team to arrive back at the Woody Hayes facility at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.
COACHING LEGENDS: According to Tressel, today’s coaches are fortunate to be able to call Paterno and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden as peers.
“In my generation of coaching, we have two guys who are unusual,” Tressel said Thursday. “Coach Bowden and coach Paterno. They’ve seen such change in the time they have coached, you’d love to sit down with them and more than a book do a documentary. You could get hours of interesting information about how our game has changed, and how it hasn’t.”