Penn State entered the season with the nation's top linebacking corps.
Paul Posluszny had won the Bednarik Award and Butkus Award a year earlier. Dan Connor appeared on the verge of meriting All-America consideration. Tim Shaw had established himself as a strong and steady presence.
But when the 24th-ranked Nittany Lions (2-1) play at No. 1 Ohio State (3-0) on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m.), the linebacker having arguably the best season will be on the opposite sideline.
James Laurinaitis entered the season without the star power of a Posluszny or Connor, but the Ohio State sophomore has wasted no time making a name for himself.
Laurinaitis burst onto the national scene by collecting 13 tackles, forcing two fumbles and intercepting a pass in Ohio State's 24-7 victory over Texas. He followed that up by recording nine tackles, a sack and an interception last week in a 37-7 whipping of Cincinnati.
"I don't feel like I've arrived yet," Laurinaitis said. "It's an honor for people to think highly of me, but I have a long way to go. I watch film of guys that played here, like A.J. (Hawk) and Bobby (Carpenter), and realize that I have a long way to go."
The main concern surrounding Ohio State before the season involved how the Buckeyes would replace Hawk, Carpenter and the seven other starters they lost from last year's defense.
Laurinaitis and Co. have calmed those fears. The Buckeyes are allowing only 8.7 points per game as they enter the Big Ten portion of their schedule.
"He is obviously a good athlete," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "He's a smart athlete, plays with intelligence and does a good job.
"You have to give the Ohio State coaching staff some credit. They know what they are doing. They make believers out of their kids, and the kids line up properly. Very rarely do you see them out of position. They hustle all the time.''
Now comes the real test.
Laurinaitis must prove that his success outside the conference can carry over to Big Ten competition.
"Coach has been saying all week that when you play games in the Big Ten, it's a whole different level," Laurinaitis said. "It kind of sounds (like a) clichι, but the Big Ten will be big and emotional."
This game also represents a chance for Penn State's linebackers to live up to their preseason billing.
Connor has matured into a star this year by collecting 30 tackles and three sacks. Posluszny has recovered well enough from a knee injury to show flashes of his 2005 form. Shaw's versatility has helped him shift to the defensive line to create more playing time for promising sophomore Sean Lee.
Even with all that talent, Penn State's defense looked quite vulnerable in a 41-17 loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago. Notre Dame tight end John Carlson found enough open space in the middle of the field to deliver the best performance of his career.
"The way we played against Notre Dame, that's not the way Penn State defenses play," Posluszny said. "I think now we have a chance to go against a great offense with talented quarterbacks, receivers, running backs. They have the total package. It's going to give our defense a chance to prove ourselves and really find out what we're made of."
This game also gives Posluszny a chance to repeat one of the best performances of his brilliant 2005 season. He recorded 14 tackles and a sack as the Nittany Lions won 17-10 while holding the Buckeyes' explosive offense to its lowest point total of the season.
Laurinaitis compared that loss to a punch in the mouth. One year later, he finally gets to hit back.
Week 4 Game of the Week: No. 24 Penn State at No. 1 Ohio State
Penn State running game vs. Ohio State run defense:Tony Hunt rushed for 1,047 yards last year and gained a career-high 143 yards last week in a 37-3 triumph over Youngstown State. Hunt could find running room against an Ohio State defense that gave up 285 total yards to Northern Illinois star Garrett Wolfe and allowed Texas to gain 5.5 yards per carry.
Edge: Penn State.
Penn State passing game vs. Ohio State pass defense: Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli has completed only 52 percent of his passes. After throwing three touchdown passes in a season-opening victory over Akron, he has one touchdown and one interception the last two weeks. Ohio State's opportunistic defense has intercepted five passes this year and collected eight sacks last weekend. If Morelli has time to throw, the Nittany Lions' talented receiving trio of Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler could cause problems for the Buckeyes' secondary.
Edge: Ohio State.
Ohio State running game vs. Penn State run defense: Penn State's defense is allowing only 1.9 yards per carry, but the Nittany Lions haven't faced a running back as good as Antonio Pittman. The Ohio State senior has gained 340 yards while averaging a whopping 6.7 yards per carry. Pittman gained 4.6 yards per attempt against a Texas defense that might be better than
Penn State at stopping the run.
Edge: Ohio State.
Ohio State passing game vs. Penn State pass defense: This is the matchup that could prevent Penn State from keeping this game close. Penn State has two first-year starting cornerbacks sophomores Justin King and Tony Davis who must try to contain Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith has emerged as a Heisman Trophy front-runner by completing 69 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Now he faces a Penn State defense that has only one interception in its first three games. The Nittany Lions already have 12 sacks this year. They won't win Saturday unless they put plenty of pressure on Smith.
Edge: Ohio State.
Penn State special teams vs. Ohio State special teams: Ohio State boasts one of the nation's top punters and kick returners. A.J. Trapasso was one of the most important players in the Texas game and has averaged 44.6 yards per punt. Ginn is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. After missing his first two field-goal attempts of the season, Ohio State's Aaron Pettrey has made three in a row. Penn State kicker Kevin Kelly is 6-of-9 on field-goal attempts and only 2-of-5 from 30-39 yards. Penn State's Jeremy Kapinos averages 34.1 yards per punt. Williams gives the Nittany Lions a dangerous return man.
Edge: Ohio State.
Penn State coaches vs. Ohio State coaches: Even though his teams have featured less talent virtually every year, Penn State coach Joe Paterno has managed to give Ohio State fits during the Jim Tressel era. Tressel owns a 3-2 record against Paterno, but the three wins have been by a combined total of 18 points. Ohio State's 2002 national champions struggled to a 13-7 victory over a Penn State team that ended up fourth in the Big Ten. The Fiesta Bowl-bound Buckeyes needed to rally from a 10-point deficit the following year to win 21-20 over a Penn State team that finished 3-9. Penn State isn't as good as Ohio State this year, but Paterno again just might find a way to keep this game close.
Edge: Penn State.
Penn State will win if: The Nittany Lions need Hunt to continue the momentum he has established by averaging more than 7 yards per carry the last two weeks. Penn State has a chance to make this game interesting if it controls the clock and keeps Ohio State's offense on the sideline. Penn State's front seven also must get in the backfield enough to harass Smith and take the pressure off the Nittany Lions' inexperienced secondary.
Ohio State will win if: Ohio State is clearly the best team and ought to win if it avoids turnovers and penalties. The Buckeyes could make things easier on themselves by shoring up their run defense and containing Hunt.
X-Factor: Penn State WR Derrick Williams.
In many respects, this sophomore wide receiver is a younger, less proven version of Ginn. Rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 1 player in the 2005 recruiting class, Williams showed electrifying ability last fall - even scoring the winning touchdown in a dramatic victory over Northwestern - before breaking his arm midway through the season. He catches passes, returns kicks and is versatile enough to line up at quarterback and running back. Williams has gained 87 all-purpose yards per game this season, but he hasn't delivered the big plays that made him one of the game's most exciting freshmen last year. Williams averages only 11.3 yards per catch, and his longest gain of the season is a 28-yard punt return. He's a superstar waiting to happen. If it doesn't happen Saturday, Penn State probably won't win.
Notes: Although Ohio State's Troy Smith was known primarily as a running quarterback until late last season, he has recreated himself as a senior. After running for 611 yards last season, Smith has minus-14 rushing yards so far this year. But he developed the other aspects of his game so much that he now leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency. Penn State owns a 4-8 all-time record against top-ranked teams. The last time the Nittany Lions faced a No. 1 team, they lost 28-9 to Ohio State in 1998. Penn State's victory over Northwestern last year ended the
Nittany Lions' five-game losing streak in Big Ten openers. The higher-ranked team has won 14 of the last 15 games in this series. The exception came last year when No. 16 Penn State beat No. 6 Ohio State 17-10. Ohio State owns a 6-0 record in home games against Penn State since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten. Penn State went 5-1 at Ohio State before entering the conference.
Megargee's pick: Ohio State, 34-20 Other Rivals.com Expert picks: Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Ohio State, 34-21 Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Penn State, 14-13 Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Ohio State, 24-13 Make your picks on Rivals.com Pick 'Em.