Chris Spielman objectively assessed the situation and harbored doubts.
No Silas Redd. No Justin Brown. No. Anthony Fera. A first-year head coach. Major NCAA sanctions.
Tough times ahead for Penn State?
“I thought at the beginning of the year they would be lucky to win two, three games just because they wouldn’t be able to sustain the offense,” Spielman said.
As he prepares to work ESPN’s broadcast of tonight’s Penn State-Ohio State game at Beaver Stadium, Spielman falls into the category of those startled by the Nittany Lions’ recent surge. After an 0-2 start, Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) has won five straight games.
The turnaround moved Penn State’s Bill O’Brien to the top of Spielman’s coach of the year list. And Spielman, a former Ohio State linebacker who had an 11-year NFL career, isn’t taking a parochial view toward the matter.
“I think across the board he’s the coach of the year,” Spielman said in a telephone interview Friday. “Look at every challenge that was placed before them, whether it was the exodus of players or the sanctions that are looming. They just go out and practice football and play football. It has been fun to see. I’m glad I was wrong with that prediction because Penn State is a great place.”
Spielman learned late last week he would be working Saturday’s game, which begins at 5:30 p.m., with Sean McDonough. In his mind, he hit a broadcasting jackpot.
The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes are playing under NCAA-mandated postseason bans. Penn State’s ban lasts four years. Ohio State’s ban ends after this season.
Spielman is returning to State College for the first time since working last year’s Penn State-Nebraska game. The Cornhuskers were the Nittany Lions’ first opponent after Joe Paterno’s firing and initial news of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Ohio State also experienced a turbulent ending to 2011, as the NCAA smacked the program with a postseason ban and scholarship losses for a cash-for-tattoos scandal. The sanctions haven’t slowed Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 8-0, including 4-0 in Big Ten play, and ranked ninth under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
“You’re looking at a situation where the kids involved in this game really had nothing to do with anything,” Spielman said. “For Penn State to have the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes coming in, it’s a huge deal. There’s going to be great energy. When we got the assignment, I was excited about this game, because I have done games here before and I know what a great place this is to do a game. It’s college football. It’s obviously big for both teams.”
Meyer’s presence adds to today’s intrigue. Meyer, an Ashtabula, Ohio, native who won two BCS titles at Florida, has stabilized and reinvigorated the Buckeyes, who went 6-7 last season. Meyer started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Earle Bruce at Ohio State.
Spielman has a personal relationship with Meyer. The pair worked games together last fall as part of an ESPN crew. Meyer’s stay in the broadcast booth lasted just one season.
“I knew he didn’t want to get back into coaching to just get back into it,” Spielman said. “I don’t know if he would be coaching if the Ohio State job wasn’t available. Ohio State is a special place for him.”
The game is considered a pick ‘em by many experts. Spielman said keys for Penn State involve containing quarterback Braxton Miller and blocking an Ohio State defensive line featuring All-American candidate John Simon and potential high-NFL draft pick Johnathan Hankins.
Spielman said Penn State senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill has the potential to cause major problems for Ohio State’s offensive line.
“The best defensive lineman that I have seen on film this year is Jordan Hill,” Spielman said. “He causes a bunch of problems for offensive linemen. He’s got to be a major factor in this game as far as his pass rushing. Braxton is a good thrower of the football. He doesn’t get credit for having a good arm, but I’m telling you, there are throws that he makes that are big-time throws.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.