No. 15 Ohio State and its talented dual-threat quarterback visit No. 11 Penn State today in a high-stakes Big Ten game. For Pryor, it will be his first game at Beaver Stadium since the western Pennsylvania native spurned Penn State last year to end one of the most publicized recruiting races in recent memory.
Nittany Lions fans haven’t forgotten, and Pryor knows it.
“It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere, but that’s what we come here for,” said Pryor, a sophomore. “We’re going (in) as a team, so if I get spit on, they spit on the whole team and stuff like that.”
As if the annual grudge match between the Buckeyes (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) and Nittany Lions (8-1, 4-1) needed any subplots.
Both teams could use a signature win to solidify their credentials for a BCS bowl berth.
The game also will break their tie for second place in the conference, putting the victor in better position for at least a share of the Big Ten crown should unbeaten Iowa falter down the stretch.
“We definitely feel like we have something to prove. There’s a whole bunch of talk that we haven’t played anybody yet,” Penn State receiver Derek Moye said.
The Nittany Lions have won five straight by lopsided margins, though they lost their toughest game this season when they fell to the Hawkeyes in late September.
A loss could put the Buckeyes in more late-season trouble. Their goal to win at least a share of their fifth consecutive Big Ten title is already in jeopardy, and they host Iowa next week.
But there’s not a Buckeye that’s looking beyond the Nittany Lions, a team that leads the Big Ten in total offense (429 yards per game) and total defense (84 yards).
“It starts up front, very physical, very strong, aggressive style, not unlike ours,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
That sounds a lot like something his Penn State counterpart, Hall of Famer Joe Paterno, would say. Games between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes usually hinge on field position and big defensive plays, whether in Happy Valley or the Horseshoe.
Tressel, like Paterno, often likes to play things close to his sweater vest. Their styles pay off given that they have 616 victories between them – Paterno the leader among major college coaches with 391, Tressel with 225.
But Paterno doesn’t like to talk about his career stats, or to compare himself to Tressel or any of his other colleagues.
“No, I’m not going to compare myself, heck,” Paterno said when a reporter broached the topic this week. “I’ll compare your writing with somebody else’s writing if you want me to do that, or something like that, but that’s not – no.”
He’s had more immediate concerns on his mind, like containing Pryor.
If there’s any defense that’s up to the challenge, it’s a Penn State unit that is the stingiest in the nation in allowing just 9.3 points per game.
The Nittany Lions’ defense leads the league in sacks, while the athletic linebacking trio of Navorro Bowman, Josh Hull and Sean Lee is one of the best in the country.
Mobile Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka lit up the Penn State defense early last week before getting hurt, though the Nittany Lions have done a good job this season in containing other running quarterbacks such as Illinois’ Juice Williams and Michigan’s Tate Forcier.
While Ohio State’s defense (11.7 points and 260 yards per game) can go toe-to-toe with the Nittany Lions, the offense has struggled at times, with much of the blame pinned on an inconsistent Pryor.
Pryor started out slow “but the last two games he’s been very, very overpowering, really. He’s running well, he’s throwing the ball well deep,” Paterno said.
Pryor would love to do the same against the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium, especially after his fourth-quarter fumble set up Penn State’s go-ahead score in last year’s 13-6 loss.
Penn State fans are ready to pounce on Pryor’s every move. Many blue-and-white backers still recall that during recruiting, Pryor called the Penn State campus in rural central Pennsylvania too “countryside” for his taste.
“I came here to Ohio State to play in this type of game. I have my teammates with me, all 70 guys,” Pryor said. “We’ll feed off of that, whether it’s our fans or their fans. It’s going to be exciting, electric.”