Coaches are always on the lookout for derogatory comments made by an upcoming opponent. "Bulletin-board material," they call it, and even the suggestion of a slur from the other side has been known to pump up the besmirched squad's emotional level.
No. 8 Ohio State has a coach, Jim Tressel, who is as abhorrent of inflammatory rhetoric as was the late Fred Rogers. In this Mr. Sweater Vest's Buckeye neighborhood, players are instructed to always be respectful - until, of course, game day, when they presumably are allowed to manhandle, stomp and abuse guys in different-colored jerseys.
But it wasn't necessary for a loose-lipped Ohio State player to throw additional fuel onto Penn State's inner fire. A Las Vegas oddsmaker did that, installing the Buckeyes as 17 1/2-point favorites over the young, injury-wracked Nittany Lions, whose three-game winning streak apparently has not convinced the guy in the green eyeshade that they're ready to compete on even terms with Tressel's latest powerhouse.
A 17 1/2-point spread at this stage of the season would suggest Ohio State (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) is playing some directional school from a mid-major conference, not Penn State (6-3, 3-2), even if the current Nits are still seeking to fully find their footing.
Considering that Penn State coach Joe Paterno is coming off his historic 400th victory, last week's come-from-behind, 35-21 burst past Northwestern, you'd think more credence would be given to the visitors' chances to at least be competitive.
Penn State career-rushing leader Evan Royster, for one, regards that rather large number as a slap in the face.
"It's kind of insulting," said Royster, who is poised to make a run at a third straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign following a recent uptick in his productivity. "I think we've proven we can win games. I think a lot of people will take offense to it."
Royster is not alone in his belief that Penn State has not gotten sufficient props for turning its season around. Sure, the Nits were given up for dead after they were bullied by Illinois, 33-13, in Beaver Stadium on Oct. 9. But a bye week served to recharge some batteries, and JoePa's players rebounded to win at Minnesota and in Beaver Stadium against Michigan and Northwestern. They are finally resembling the team that was ranked No. 19 by the Associated Press in the preseason poll.
"We set our sights on winning six games in a row after we were 3-3," said Royster, who gained 284 yards in the wins over the Wolverines and Wildcats to hike his season total to 734. "But you've got to win four before you can win six."
Quarterback Matt McGloin, the former walk-on who has emerged as the unlikely hero of Penn State's resurgence, sided with Royster on the perception of disrespect shown to their improving team. That oddsmaker, whoever he is, has done everything but step on the Nits' blue suede shoes.
"Obviously, it's upsetting that people could think a school like Penn State could be 17- or 18-point underdogs," said McGloin. "For somebody to throw around big numbers like that is just ridiculous, I think. We're a good football team, they're a good football team. We're going to play our game until [the scoreboard] reads 00:00. Then we'll know who's better."
McGloin, who has thrown for seven touchdowns and run for one, with just a single interception, in one start and two relief appearances for Rob Bolden the past 3 weeks, appears to have entrenched himself as the Nits' primary passer. He's on a roll, and he's convinced it's not ready to end just yet.
"We're definitely going to be able to move the ball," he said. "I don't think anybody else in the Big Ten has the playmakers we have. And, right now, the offensive line's doing a great job, so we'll be able to run the ball well."
Penn State's resurgence notwithstanding, cold, hard statistics seem to support the notion that Ohio State is simply too deep and too good to fall victim to an upset. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in scoring (an average of 42 points per game) and scoring defense (13.6 ppg); the Nits' corresponding figures are ninth in scoring (24.2 ppg) and fifth in scoring defense (20.1 ppg).
"You could take [the spread] as an insult, but I feel it's a challenge," middle linebacker Chris Colasanti reasoned. "People can think what they want, but we know what we're capable of and what we're going to do. I feel like we're a great team. People still kind of underestimate us, but those numbers are a challenge. It's up to us to accept that challenge."
3 THINGS TO LOOK FOR
1. More Matt McGloin passes, particularly deep balls, directed at Derek Moye, who has emerged as the new starting QB's go-to receiver. Their unspoken communication was evident on a 36-yard touchdown pass against Northwestern when Moye stumbled, altered his route to a streak and hauled in the bomb on a play that almost looked as if it had been the one sent in from the sideline. It wasn't.
"I knew Matt would put the ball where it needed to be," Moye said.
2. Penn State offensive line coaches Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney, no doubt, have done much of their game-planning on ways to slow down Cameron Heyward, Ohio State's 6-5, 288-pound senior defensive end and son of the late former Pitt and NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. In the Buckeyes' 24-7 win last year, Heyward was in on 11 tackles, including two sacks and three tackles-for-loss.
3. If a special-teams play is the difference, it could come from Penn State cornerback Chaz Powell, who leads the Big Ten with a 28.1-yard average on 15 kickoff returns.
Ohio State 27, Penn State 21
Who: Penn State at No. 8 Ohio State
When: Tomorrow, 3:36 p.m.
Where: Ohio Stadium, Columbus
TV: Channel 6
Radio: WNTP (990-AM); WPNV (1440-AM)
Records: Penn State 6-3, 3-2 Big Ten Conference; Ohio State 8-1, 4-1
History: The Buckeyes lead the series, 13-12, edging ahead on last year's 24-7 victory in Beaver Stadium. The good news for Penn State: The visiting team has won the last three meetings. The bad news: The higher-ranked team has won the last 17 of 19 games between the schools.
Coaches: Joe Paterno (45th year, 400-132-5); Jim Tressel (10th year at school, 102-22; 25th year overall, 239-79-2)
About Penn State: The defensive ends that started the season, Jack Crawford (foot) and Eric Latimore (wrist), haven't really played together since the Oct. 2 game at Iowa. They're both expected to see action tomorrow, but Crawford is listed on the depth-chart team behind Pete Massaro while Latimore is third on the other side behind Jordan Hill and Sean Stanley ... With this week's dismissal of Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, the number of Football Bowl Subdivision coaches who have moved on since Joe Paterno became the Nits' leader in 1966 now stands at 864.
About Ohio State: Quarterback Terrelle Pryor had this to say about his Penn State counterpart, former walk-on Matt McGloin: "I never heard of him. I've heard of [backup Rob] Bolden, though" ... Coach Jim Tressel is the second-winningest FBS coach, but his 239 career victories are 161 behind Penn State's Joe Paterno. "There is a huge disparity between one and two," Tressel said ... The Buckeyes used their bye week to get healthy and expect the return of starting linebacker Ross Homan (foot), who has been sidelined since the second quarter of the Wisconsin game on Oct. 16. Also back after an absence of several weeks is backup linebacker and special-teamer Dorian Bell (concussion).