The 16th-ranked Nittany Lions are out to prove they’re again worthy of being considered among the nation’s elite programs when they host Big Ten rival Ohio State at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Coming off four losing seasons in the last five years, Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) jumped into the AP top-25 with an impressive 44-14 win over then-No. 18 Minnesota at State College, Pa., on Saturday.
Penn State is back into the rankings for the first time since the final media poll of the 2002 season. With seven straight wins dating to last year, the Nittany Lions have the third-longest winning streak in the nation, behind top-ranked USC (26) and No. 2 Texas (11).
With a win over sixth-ranked Ohio State (3-1, 1-0), the Nittany Lions could emerge as the surprise favorite for the Big Ten title and the conference’s BCS bid.
But the Buckeyes are pumped up to spoil those plans before a national television audience.
“I love playing at Penn State,” senior center Nick Mangold said. “It will be great to play there at night. It is a great atmosphere, and a great place to play college football.”
Despite Penn State’s early success, coach Paterno isn’t buying into the growing hype just yet.
“I don’t want to get carried away here,” said Paterno, whose team is off to its first 5-0 start since 1999. “We got a long way to go.”
The Nittany Lions ran roughshod over the previously unbeaten Gophers last Saturday and need to replicate that effort against a game Buckeyes squad.
Penn State shut down Minnesota’s vaunted running attack and Heisman Trophy candidate Laurence Maroney. Maroney was held to a season-low 48 yards.
Freshman Derrick Williams ran for two early scores and Tony Hunt rushed for two more touchdowns and 114 of Penn State’s season-high 364 rushing yards.
The Nittany Lions notched their first win over a ranked team since beating Wisconsin in 2002.
Williams, a freshman who was one of Paterno’s prized offseason recruits, normally plays receiver, but has also been used in the backfield in Penn State’s new-look offense.
Williams finished Saturday with six carries for 40 yards and four catches for 32 yards.
“We’ve got to find ways to get him the football, there’s no question about that,” said Paterno.
Penn State’s improved offense has not been lost on Ohio State.
“They are a lot faster and they are just flying around the ball,” Buckeyes safety Nate Salley said Tuesday. “They have lots of playmakers on offense now.”
Ohio State is coming off a bye week and has not played since an impressive 31-6 win over Iowa on Sept. 24.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk helped stuff the Hawkeyes’ offense, while Troy Smith threw two touchdown passes to Anthony Gonzalez and ran for two more scores.
Antonio Pittman rushed for 171 yards on 28 carries for the Buckeyes, with Smith adding 127 yards on 18 carries and TDs of 16 and 4 yards. Smith and Pittman became the first Ohio State quarterback-tailback tandem to top 100 yards in the same game since 1976.
The Buckeyes’ only loss came against Texas in their second game on Sept. 10.
Ohio State’s offense has had some success despite struggling to get sophomore standout Ted Ginn Jr. involved. The speedy wide receiver, who is a threat to score on every play, accounted for eight touchdowns during an impressive freshman campaign in 2004. Ginn has 13 receptions for 152 yards and one score this season. He made just three catches for 31 yards against the Hawkeyes.
The all-time series is tied at 10-10, but Ohio State has won the last three meetings by a combined 18 points, including a 21-10 victory last year in Columbus. The Buckeyes won 21-20 in State College in 2003.