IOWA CITY, Iowa — Penn State players and coaches aren’t leaving for Florida or California, though the climate this week in State College will be as balmy as those destinations.
Nobody will drop electronic devices, jewelry or video games into goodie bags.
The lack of a journey to a vacation hot spot and the perks aside, the Nittany Lions are viewing this weekend’s meeting with Ohio State as a bowl game.
Penn State (5-2) and Ohio State (8-0) are playing for first place in the Big Ten Leaders Division on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Both teams are undefeated in conference play, with the Nittany Lions moving to 3-0 by crunching Iowa 38-14 and Ohio State outlasting Purdue 29-22 in overtime to improve to 4-0 this past weekend. Michigan, which plays in the Legends Division, is the only other Big Ten team without a conference loss.
For Penn State, which can’t make a postseason appearance until 2016 because of NCAA sanctions, a visit from the ninth-ranked Buckeyes qualifies as a big deal.
“It’s going to be awesome,” sophomore Jesse Della Valle said outside the Kinnick Stadium visitors locker room late Saturday night. “We are all excited about it already. We’re getting an undefeated team coming into our house.”
After plunging into an 0-2 hole, Penn State has won five straight games and appears to be peaking at an ideal time. The Nittany Lions have outscored conference opponents 112-49, a gap that could be bigger if it weren’t for multiple special teams breakdowns.
Penn State, which received a season-high 16 votes in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, learned last month it is eligible to capture the Leaders Division trophy. A win against Ohio State would move Penn State to 4-0 in conference play, making it the favorite to win the six-team division.
In coach Bill O’Brien’s mind, his team is playing for something bigger.
“I think when you play football at Penn State — and I’m only a rookie at Penn State — you have a hell of a lot to play for,” he said. “I believe that you have a 1,000 lettermen to play for, you have a tradition to play for, you have a student body to play for, you have each other to play for. I believe that these kids have really good chemistry.”
Many of those lettermen and a large part of the student body are taking a keen interest in Saturday’s game, which begins at 5:30 p.m. The game will be televised nationally and the plight of both programs will be examined this week. Ohio State, which also has a first-year head coach Urban Meyer, also faces a NCAA-mandated postseason ban in 2012.
The Beaver Stadium crowd should exceed 100,000 fans for the first time this season. O’Brien said on his radio show last week that Penn State is planning to host between 80 and 100 high school prospects.
The game will easily be the biggest in O’Brien’s nine-month Penn State tenure, an era gaining momentum despite major NCAA sanctions designed to cripple the program. So far, the sanctions, which also include scholarship reductions and a waiver offering players penalty-free transfers, have strengthened bonds within the program.
“If we’re proving anything, it’s that Penn State is not going anywhere,” senior linebacker Michael Mauti said. “You can do what you want to us. You can take things away from us, you can split us apart. It’s not going to happen. The guys right here care about the program, care about the university, care about each other and just want to play good. We want to represent our university the best we can and we have a lot of guys that have bought into what we are doing and our goals.”
Defeating Iowa on the road for the first time since 1999 represented a major feat. But players said after the game they are already pointing toward today’s practice. The closing stretch also includes road games at Purdue and Nebraska and home contests against Indiana and Wisconsin.
“We understand we can do something special here and we only have five games left now,” senior quarterback Matt McGloin said. “Guys understand that. We’re done at the end of November instead of playing for the Big Ten championship or bowl game. I only have five games left and chances to put the helmet on. I understand that and everyone else does.”