No White Out crowd facing Ohio State, but Penn State should still pose a challenge

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Other than a win over Michigan, few feats rank higher in satisfaction for Ohio State in Big Ten football competition than a victory in Happy Valley.

Penn State is a formidable program, for sure, but when the Buckeyes play at Beaver Stadium, they have to contend with much more than the 11 Nittany Lions on the field. In 2004, Penn State started a tradition in which one home game each season is designated a “White Out,” turning the stadium into a blizzard of white pom-poms and white noise.

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Care to guess which team gets the White Out with each visit? Ohio State treats that as a sign of respect as well as a challenge. But this year, with fans barred from Big Ten games because of the coronavirus pandemic, the No. 3 Buckeyes won’t get the White Out treatment for the game Saturday night.

Ohio State receiver K.J. Hill spoiled Penn State's White Out party in 2018 with a 24-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 2:03 remaining gave the Buckeyes a 27-26 win.

It might make their challenge easier, but the Buckeyes would prefer business as usual.

“I love the White Out,” cornerback Shaun Wade said. “It’s a definite challenge — a big stage in college football, a big stage in our life as a Buckeye. I really was looking forward to this year, but it didn't happen.”

Wade is one of the few current Buckeyes who played in Ohio State’s 27-26 comeback win in 2018. He called that one of the best and most fun games he has experienced.

“I really love the competition,” Wade said. “I love their fans trying to rile us up.”

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The lack of a White Out isn’t the only thing that has taken some of the luster off this game. The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 8 nationally before going to Indiana last week and losing 36-35 in a bizarre overtime game. Penn State gave the Hoosiers a chance to tie the score in regulation because it scored an uncontested touchdown rather than take a knee with 1:42 to play.

Ohio State is a 12-point favorite over the Nittany Lions, now ranked 18th. The Buckeyes rolled over Nebraska 52-17 in their opener, but it wasn’t a complete masterpiece. While quarterback Justin Fields, a one-time Penn State commitment, completed 20 of 21 passes, the run game was sluggish. The Buckeyes’ defense was shaky early.

Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade broke up two passes, including this one intended for KJ Hamler, in OSU's win two years ago, and said he would miss the rollicking atmosphere in this season's game,

Given the 10-month gap between games, it would have been a surprise if the Buckeyes had looked flawless. It’s a football axiom that teams usually improve the most from their first game to their second. The disrupted offseason probably makes that more the case this year.

“I think we learned some about ourselves in the first game,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “But we're at least a couple weeks behind, for sure. That's where good teams really improve a lot, from week one to week two. And so if we can accelerate this thing this week, have a great week of practice and fix some of the things that we need to get fixed, that'll be important in terms of the catch-up.”

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Penn State is not the same team it was expected to be entering the offseason. Linebacker Micah Parsons, perhaps the front-runner for Big Ten defensive player of the year, opted out of the season. Star running back Journey Brown is out with an undisclosed health issue and last week’s starter, Noah Cain, sustained a season-ending injury.

But Sean Clifford is a capable quarterback and he has a star tight end in Pat Freirmuth and some talented, if young, wide receivers. The offensive line is solid. Penn State’s defense held Indiana in check for almost all of regulation.

“We’ve got our hands full this week,” Day said. “We’ve got to make sure that we're on top of our game.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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