Penn State hunts for only title left to win
After this season, the Big Ten's Leaders and Legends will (mercifully) join the likes of the NHL's Smythe, NFL's Century and NBA's Midwest on the sports division-name scrap heap.
Penn State is striving to enter the books as the final reigning Leaders Division champion. After all, that's the only title the NCAA will allow the Nittany Lions to compete for.
The Lions (4-2, 1-1) are banned from a bowl bid and conference or national championship consideration, but they control their destiny to win the division title in the final season before the Big Ten ditches its current monikers for “East” and “West” in 2014.
A win at No. 4 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0) at 8 p.m. Saturday would leave Penn State tied for first place in the loss column.
But if the Lions have set a team goal to attain the only championship they can get, they're not eager to say so.
“I don't really think we need any type of extra motivation like that,” linebacker Glenn Carson said. “Everyone on the team loves to win and loves to play hard each week, and we're determined to get that week's win. It's the only motivation we really need.”
Several Penn State players were asked this week about what significance — if any — the division title held. Many parroted coach Bill O'Brien, who said, “I don't get into too much of that … I talk to our guys about playing 12 one-game seasons, and our guys are pretty motivated regardless.”
A win against Ohio State would carry heavy significance beyond the Leaders Division race. The Lions haven't beaten a top-five opponent in more than 14 years, the most recent such victory being No. 3 PSU's 41-7 win over No. 4 Arizona in the 1999 season opener.
Since, Penn State is 0-9 against teams ranked in the AP top five, losing by an average of 17.3 points. Three of those nine losses were to Ohio State, and they were by an average of 16 points.
“This game definitely means a lot to us,” Lions safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said. “It's probably one of the highlight games of the year. They are the highest-ranked team in our conference.”
The Buckeyes have won 19 consecutive games overall and 13 straight at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State's most recent home loss? Against Penn State, 20-14, on Nov. 19, 2011. That was the only game the Lions won under interim coach Tom Bradley.
Like the division title, Penn State's players downplay talk of a rivalry with the Buckeyes, who remain the conference team in closest proximity.
“When you're at Ohio State,” Buckeyes defensive line coach and former Steeler Mike Vrabel said, “regardless of who you play, every game is big.”
If Penn State does ultimately win the division, the runner-up would play in the Big Ten championship game.
“We want everyone else to do know that even though we can't play for a conference championship or national championship, that doesn't matter to us right now and that's not our focus,” Penn State cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “We just want to play football.”