The Buckeyes are having a down year. The Nittany Lions' real tests don't come until November, with games against Michigan and Michigan State. No. 2 Penn State will easily cover the 11-point spread at home against the 18th-ranked Buckeyes.
Forget all that talk, coaches John Cooper and Joe Paterno said. Rankings go out the door when these two meet: Plenty is always at stake for both.
"They're still Ohio State," Lions linebacker Brandon Short said. "It doesn't matter if they're 0-10. They're coming here to play Penn State. It's Penn State-Ohio State. Records don't matter."
Three times in the past six years, one of them has been No. 1. From 1996-98, both were unbeaten and in the Top 10. Year after year, the Big Ten championship and a run at the national title are still possibilities for one or the other when they meet.
This time, Penn State has the most on the line: Though 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten, questions remain after its lackluster victory over Iowa on Saturday. Ohio State is the first of four ranked opponents who will decide in the next six weeks whether the Lions are contenders in the national title race.
For the Buckeyes (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten), who have staggered after losing virtually every star from last year's 11-1 team, an upset would rejuvenate a team that lost to Miami in the opener and collapsed against Wisconsin.
Paterno, for one, isn't overlooking them, especially since the Buckeyes have beaten him more times (4) than any other team since the Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.
"This is a very, very good Ohio State team," he said. "Don't be misled by what happened to them in a couple of ball games."
That may sound like typical Paterno, but he is apparently preparing for the Buckeyes with great caution. He abruptly barred players from talking to the media this week, perhaps to avoid bulletin-board material, perhaps to quiet the inevitable pregame hype.
LaVar Arrington already popped off in the preseason, telling Sports Illustrated that Na'il Diggs, Ohio State's leading tackler with 53, is "all right, but he's not me."
Penn State's John Blick shed some light on the blackout, saying the team was trying to avoid getting wound up about the Buckeyes.
"I think we're going to keep it in perspective. I don't think we're going to get too overconfident or overemotional about the game," he said.
Cooper played mind games with his players, too.
On Monday, Cooper taunted his players, saying he didn't think they could win unless they played perfect and Penn State made plenty of mistakes. That uset a few of them.
The Buckeyes have lost a starting quarterback, a running back, two receivers and three defensive stars from last year, but Paterno sees the same kind of team.
"They are younger, but they have the same kind of ability," he said. "I don't see much difference."
The Buckeyes are taking comfort in playing almost the same Lions team that lost 28-9 in Columbus last year.
"I know it's basically the same team as last year that we only get 179 yards of total offense," Diggs said. "I think if we come out and study the film because there's not too much they do but come out and study film and tackle and do things like last year's team did, there's no way that team should win."
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