(AP) — The Big Ten’s two best teams might not meet in December’s conference championship game. Instead, they could be playing this weekend.
While neither No. 9 Ohio State nor Penn State is eligible to represent the conference in Indianapolis, Saturday’s game in Happy Valley may determine which team winds up on top of the Leaders Division.
NCAA sanctions have left the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions unable to play for the Big Ten title, but the conference said last month it would acknowledge either school as the division champ despite that ban – and Saturday’s winner will have the inside track to do just that.
Wisconsin, with one conference loss, is the only other Leaders Division team with a realistic chance of finishing ahead of Ohio State or Penn State.
The Buckeyes are 8-0 for the first time since 2007 and 4-0 in the conference, while Penn State (5-2, 3-0) is riding a five-game winning streak since dropping its first two. But despite being one of the country’s 11 remaining undefeated squads, Ohio State may be the more vulnerable team.
Urban Meyer needed to rely on backup quarterback Kenny Guiton last week against Purdue after a big hit sent star Braxton Miller out of the game and into the hospital. Guiton engineered the game-tying touchdown drive before the Buckeyes escaped with a 29-22 overtime victory against the Boilermakers.
That still didn’t do much to quell the concerns about Miller, who is second in the Big Ten in total offense (292.9 yards per game) and 41 yards shy of becoming the first Ohio State quarterback to ever run for 1,000 in a season.
Miller cleared all tests and is dealing with a sore neck, but Meyer said he expects him to start on Saturday. The hit that knocked Miller out wasn’t the first time he has been on the receiving end of a big shot this season, and his coach didn’t hide his uneasiness about his sophomore’s health going forward.
“Very concerned,” Meyer said. “… I don’t know that I use the word amazed very often, but he’s a tough guy. He’s very strong. He takes care of himself.
“Very concerned. He’s our best player.”
Meyer would like Miller to be more cautious, but doesn’t want to change who he is.
“I think you let him be him and coach him,” Meyer said. “If you have the opportunity to step out of bounds after a big play, step out of bounds.”
Ohio State will need Miller – who accounts for 67 percent of the team’s total offense – against a stingy Nittany Lion defense that’s second in the Big Ten, allowing 15.7 points per game.
Penn State has won by an average of 20.2 points during its winning streak, including an impressive 38-14 rout last Saturday to win at Iowa for the first time since 1999. The Nittany Lions have yielded less than 250 yards of total offense in three of their last four games.
“What I love about our defense is that they play extremely hard,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s not always pretty. But they compete. They play extremely hard, which is the No. 1 thing in defensive football.”
On the other side of the ball, perhaps no Nittany Lion is benefiting more from O’Brien’s arrival than quarterback Matt McGloin. The senior has already set a single-season career high for passing yards (1,788), and his 255.4 per-game mark leads the Big Ten.
Saturday won’t be the first time McGloin has faced a Meyer-coached squad. Meyer’s Florida team toppled McGloin and Penn State 37-24 in the 2011 Outback Bowl – the coach’s last game with the Gators.
But McGloin – who was just 17 of 41 in that loss while being intercepted five times – seems like a completely different player now.
“He’s much improved,” Meyer said. “He’s always been a very accurate passer. The guys around him are playing better as well.”
The Buckeyes have won three of the last four meetings in central Pennsylvania, though Penn State held them scoreless in the second half last season for a 20-14 win in Columbus. Miller ran for 105 yards and a score but completed just 7 for 17 passes for 83 yards.
Ohio State owns a 15-12 all-time series edge, though that includes its vacated 2010 win as well as five vacated Penn State victories from 1999-2011.