The Nittany Lions were idle Saturday and used their bye week to turn their attention from an pulsating, quadruple-overtime victory against Michigan on Oct. 12 to the 7-0 Buckeyes, who have yet to lose since Urban Meyer took over as head coach in 2012.
The Buckeyes haven't lost since the January 2012 Gator Bowl, against Florida.
With the lights on at "The Horseshoe," Saturday (8 o'clock, 6ABC) will mark the first hostile road test for true freshman Christian Hackenberg. The 18-year-old leads all Big Ten passers with 278.7 yards per game at the season's midway mark, and offensive tackle Adam Gress said the signal-caller "knows how to handle himself" when it comes to crowd noise.
Because of a scheduling shuffle when the Big Ten realigned in 2011, Saturday will be the third time in 4 years Penn State has visited Ohio Stadium, so Hackenberg has plenty of upperclassmen he can ask for advice. That includes senior linebacker Glenn Carson, who said he embraces the big stage.
"I like when I know when the game is going to be a bloodbath, and it comes down to the very end," Carson said. "I think that's when I play my best. I play really well when I know I'm playing against a tough opponent."
The 100,000-plus people in the stands won't be as worrisome for the Penn State offense as the 11 players lining up on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Ohio State has what O'Brien dubbed "the most athletic defense" Penn State has seen this season. Featuring talented linebacker Ryan Shazier - who is second in the conference with eight tackles for loss - the Buckeyes are fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 19.9 points per game, and limit opponents to 92.4 rushing yards per contest.
"It's a very challenging defense. They have a number of guys on that defense that are good players." O'Brien said. "[Shazier]'s a very athletic guy, very instinctive guy, a guy that can slip blocks very easily. You'd better know where he is in the passing game, whether he's blitzing or in coverage."
O'Brien said he plans to use running backs Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak against the tough Ohio State front seven. Zwinak, the usual starter, did not play a snap after his fumble to open the third quarter against Michigan resulted in an opposing touchdown, while Belton was the team's primary tailback the rest of the game and scored the game-winning touchdown.
The two are listed as the co-starters on this week's depth chart, and O'Brien noted both will get carries.
"[Zwinak]'s going to play, obviously," O'Brien said. "And then Billy has improved quite a bit. He's another guy that's in that category of a guy that's really worked hard to improve and this year has taken advantage of his playing time when he's been out there. We'll continue to rotate guys in at that position."
Regardless of what happens, O'Brien did score one victory against Meyer recently when coveted tight end recruit Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J.) orally committed to Penn State over Ohio State. Meyer was asked about O'Brien on Monday at his weekly news conference, and called him a "first-class guy."
"He represents a great school," Meyer said. "I do know a lot about Penn State, and it doesn't surprise me that Penn State is doing well."
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