Penn State looking forward to rare showdown with No. 1 team
STATE COLLEGE — Jordan Lucas realizes he and most of his teammates won't get an opportunity like this again.
The Penn State senior safety was still in high school the last time Penn State played a No. 1 opponent. The Nittany Lions lost to Alabama then and haven't fared well against the country's best since. They're 3-12 against ranked teams since the 2010 loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium — a pattern the Nittany Lions will try to turn around on their trip to Columbus this weekend to face Ohio State.
"It's the opportunity of a lifetime," Lucas said. "Ohio State is the top team in college football right now. I'm sure they feel like they have a target on their back and teams want to take them down and that's a great challenge."
It's one head coach James Franklin made special mention of at a team meeting on Sunday. Although Franklin usually refuses to put any opponent on a pedestal, he thought it necessary considering the rare circumstance and the momentum his team has built since a humbling loss to Temple on Sept. 5.
Then, quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times and his team was embarrassed by the Owls. But Penn State's offense has improved since, protecting Hackenberg for large stretches where he's found receivers downfield. The junior quarterback has completed 56 percent of his passes over the last three games and hasn't thrown an interception in 93 attempts. He's had help on the ground where running backs Nick Scott and Mark Allen have found holes to run through with Akeel Lynch and Saquon Barkley out.
Barkley was consistently explosive, averaging nearly 9 yards per carry, before suffering a right ankle injury against San Diego State. And while he's questionable to return this weekend — Franklin didn't update his status Tuesday — the Nittany Lions can rely on another constant.
A defense that's leading the country with 25 sacks and is in the Top 10 in tackles for loss (53) and turnover margin (plus-8) has afforded the offense time and space to grow.
"I think we're resilient," Franklin said. "I think we have found ways to be successful each week, different ways of doing it. We're getting better."
Ohio State plans to black out Ohio Stadium — an opposite take on Penn State's White Out — and will debut new, all-black uniforms.
With five straight home games, and the season-opener played in Philadelphia where Penn State fans made up a majority of the crowd, tackle Andrew Nelson is looking forward to being the bad guys for once.
"I think that's something that we're definitely all embracing," Nelson said. "Obviously we know that we're hated by the Ohio State community but we have a great opportunity this weekend to go in there and play with the best of our ability."
Lucas doesn't believe aesthetics will play much of a role, however. He's concerned with keeping Ohio State's play makers out of the end zone.
Four Buckeyes, including multi-talented Braxton Miller, are averaging more than 12 yards per catch while running back Ezekiel Elliott has 22 runs of 10 or more yards and 10 touchdowns.
"They have a lot of different weapons so everybody has to be accounted for," Lucas said. "They have a veteran offensive line. They have a good quarterback and they have athletes on the perimeter . (we have to) make sure we play mistake-free football."
Nelson, who was on the 2013 team that was thrashed 63-14 in Columbus, knows what mistake-filled football feels like. He knows what it took to close the gap last year when Penn State bounced back from a 17-point halftime deficit to force double overtime where the Buckeyes won at Beaver Stadium.
"We can move the ball on them offensively and we can definitely stick with this team," Nelson said. "We don't fear anybody."