White. Nothing like it. Pure, clean, loud, busy, random, raucous, 31-10, 4OT, super reliable from inside 40. Moments that can only be described by two words: White Out.
This Saturday, one team steps into a house where every thought is blocked out by white noise. Where ever fan is clad in one color, a sea – no an ocean – of white. A place where the team from Columbus was the first victim to go down under the lights of white at Beaver Stadium in 2005. A place where they were rocked from No. 2 just two years ago.
The players may be different. No Saquon Barkley; no J.T. Barrett; no Grant Haley; no Curtis Samuel; no Chris Godwin; no Tyler Durbin. The stakes may have changed. What was once seemingly a top team vs a wild underdog has turned into a top ten matchup. But what hasn’t changed are the teams, the rivalry, the animosity, the hatred, Penn State – Ohio State. Two teams rooted in history, a rivalry that dates back to trips to Columbus in the 60s, a Fiesta Bowl in the 80s, top ten matchups during the 90s, #324, a blocked punt, and a birth of a tradition.
The White Out Game is one like no other. An environment ranked at the top of most people lists, called “a scene” by Kirk Herbstreit, the toughest atmosphere to play in by Nick Mangold, and a noise level that Urban Meyer wished “they would save […] for other games.” In 2013, it played host to one of the most famous games ever to occur on the field of historic Beaver Stadium, a 4OT thriller against No. 18 Michigan, one defined by Allen Robinson’s miracle catch at the one yard line. In 2016, it gave Penn State the statement win over then No. 2 Ohio State they needed to say “we are back.” In 2017, it gave Penn State a defining high as they routed Michigan under the lights. What will 2018 bring, one can wonder?
On September 29th, 2018, Ohio State and Penn State will square off for the 5th time in the blanket of white. Both teams have faced adversity already this season: Ohio State losing Urban Meyer for the first three games of the year; Penn State needed every second to beat Appalachian State in the home opener. But what happened during the first few weeks of the season is meaningless; only what happens on Saturday matters – and boy does it matter a lot. Momentum, a Conference Titles, Playoff spots, a National Title perhaps – all on the line on Saturday. But more important than that, bragging rights in one of the toughest conference divisions in college football.
Penn State comes in with a lot to work on. The early season has not treated them well. After losing Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Jason Cabinda, and even coach Joe Moorhead in the offseason, Penn State had a lot of rebuilding to do on the defensive side of the ball, and a lot of questions to answer on the offensive side.
Many of those questions have been answered – Trace McSorley has put the team on his shoulders this year, leading drive after drive, proving to be Clutch with a capital C in his win over App State, showing his abilities to throw and run. Miles Sanders is picking up where Barkley left off, with just under 500 years rushing and 5 total touchdowns through 4 games, and already a 200 yard game just last week on the road in Illinois. Wide receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins are a picking up what Trace puts up, although the redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler has stolen the show with his speed. But the defense? Questions to answer.
- Aggression: I hate to say that the secondary is soft, but it is. A still-learning secondary can be like that sometimes, but the holes that they’ve left for opposing teams has been very difficult to watch at times. Far too many times the defensive backs stay off the receivers by nearly five yards, giving easy catches to receivers before attempting to tackle. Against Kent State and Pitt, that won’t be a problem, but when the Ohio States and Wisconsins of the world come into town, plays like that are game breakers. Be aggressive, cut off passing routes, and play for the ball, not just the tackle. Amani Oruwariye has set the tone for this defense thus far, but much more is needed from everyone if they are going to have consistent stops in the air.
- Tackling: the second biggest weakness for this Nittany Lions team is the ability to tackle. On both defense and special times, Penn State lets opposing players just slip by, especially behind the line, making what looks to be an easy negative play into a gain of bunches. Missed tackles plagued Penn State against Appalachian State and nearly cost them the game. They improved greatly on the road against Pitt and Illinois, but did not show the same fundamentals at home against Kent State.
- Stopping the Run: the biggest weakness is the run defense; through four games, they have allowed 172.5 yards/game to opposing running backs, including a huge 245 yards on the ground last week to Illinois. Ohio State has the 3rd best rushing attack of Top Ten teams, behind Penn State and Georgia. If Ohio State can get their rushing attack going (which they couldn’t last week against Tulane), it could be a long and tiring night for the defense in Happy Valley.
Yet, for all the difficulties that Penn State has, Ohio State has some of their own. Their secondary let up many big plays and showed simple technical problems with up-tempo against Oregon State and TCU. Penn State loves to play up-tempo and go for the home run play (with speed receivers in Hamler, Thompkins, and Johnson) – that could spell trouble for Ohio State’s secondary. The strength of this Ohio State defense is in the defensive line, led by top five draft prospect Nick Bosa and Dre’Mnt Jones. But with Nick Bosa out how will this defensive line step up against a much improved Penn State offensive line. We didn’t get much of an opportunity to see how Jones and crew were able to do against Tulane, although we did see their linebackers step up greatly, with more than half of the total tackles for a loss and three of the four total sacks.
Somehow, we’ve gotten through this whole write-up without mentioning Dwayne Haskins, who has 17 total touchdowns (16 through the air and 1 on the ground) and over 75% completion percentage. Now, while those numbers are greatly inflated against the weak defenses of Oregon State, Rutgers, and Tulane 14 of his touchdowns occurred and where he passed for over 87% two of those three games, he still had a great game against a very tough TCU defense that has found ways of shutting down some of the Big 12’s most prolific passers. This will be his first true road test of his starting career – a very tough first test. Trace McSorley on the other hand, might not have the completion percentage of Haskins, but has been sharp through the air where it counts – with touchdowns (and his record streak of games with a TD has been extended to 32 straight); his legs and versatility has been the key for Penn State with him under center. The combination of McSorley and Miles Sanders (who, although lacking the quick cuts and vision of Saquon Barkley, has speed and strength to power through the defensive line and make separation for big plays) have given Penn State a new dynamic, a more unpredictable dynamic, than what they had the previous two years.
Just two years ago, Ohio State walked into Happy Valley the number two team in the land. They walked out stunned, shocked, and defeated by an electric Penn State team that has never looked back. Ohio State may have gotten their revenge last year at the horseshoe, ending Penn State’s playoff hopes, but just like any great boxing match, it’s a back and forth. The Nittany Lions get their chance at revenge come Saturday night, under the lights, a background of white, a noise level that will be heard all across Happy Valley – over 110,000 will stand, yell, cheer, scream, and cause chaos, in what is the most electrifying and toughest environments in all of college football. It’s the White Out, a wonder to be seen, a wonder to be hear, a wonder that will always keep us wondering, what will happen when fans turn in those basic blues and black shoes for an attire of pure white.