A day before going live from campus, ESPN’s College GameDay crew previewed the highly anticipated primetime game between Penn State and Ohio State.
Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis and Desmond Howard joined reporters outside Old Main, a few steps away from Saturday’s set, to discuss all things No. 9 Nittany Lions and No. 4 Ohio State.
Here’s what they had to say about the keys to the game, Trace McSorley, Miles Sanders and what being in a White Out’s like:
What do you think is the key to Saturday’s game, or maybe what could be the deciding factor?
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Herbstreit: I think there’s a couple things. No, 1, we really haven’t seen either of these teams tested the way they’re going to be tested in this game. ... I did the Ohio State-TCU game; the up-tempo approach from TCU gave Ohio State fits and, even though Penn State has not necessarily been really going up-tempo, I kind of think they will this game because of the atmosphere, the crowd. Try to get Ohio State on their heels. How Ohio State’s defense handles that kind of speed and execution.
And, on the other side, I think Dwayne Haskins is throwing the ball as well as any quarterback right now in the country. And his receivers over the last couple years have been young, and they’re older and now they’re making a lot of plays. And they’re a tough matchup for any secondary. So, to me, the White Out, the crowd and the Ohio State offensive line is the whole game. Because if No. 7 wearing white has time, he’s going to pick you apart. But if the (Ohio State) linemen are in there and they’re panicking on third-and-6 and (Penn State’s) linemen are going by, then Penn State is obviously going to win the game.
Davis: To me the biggest thing is, can Penn State control — even without Bosa — can Penn State control Ohio State’s pass rush, which they will still have some? Will they be able to be a little balanced and run it? Because that hasn’t been the most effective thing they’ve done against Ohio State the last couple years. And just the last two years, huge plays in special teams have been really important to the outcome of the game. Who can make the big play on special teams and do it at a clutch moment?
Howard: I think, typically, in this matchup, it’s a special-teams play. And I think that’s what it’s going to come down to. You got two of the highest-scoring offenses in the nation, two highly productive quarterbacks — obviously that guy right there, (Trace) McSorley, is battle-tested in these games and this is going to be Dwayne Haskins’ first go-round in this magnitude. But I just expect it to be, man, a special-teams play that can make the difference. That’s what I’m looking forward to at this point.
From the 2016 Ohio State game to now, where have you seen McSorley grow?
Herbstreit: Just command of the offense. He’s played in so many big games at this point in his career that I just don’t think there’s anything he hasn’t seen. So when you operate in that way, you see things and have an answer very quickly. Early in his career, like any quarterback, you’re trying to be sure, you’re trying to make sure your eyes are right and then you pull the trigger. These past two years, he’s just executing at such a high level. And his ability to know the offense, run, throw, scramble, create, he’s just a dynamic player.
Davis: You have seen him grow confidence. He’s the ultimate gamer. He’s got that little edge, bravado and swagger to him. And even if his numbers up to a certain point in the game — completion percentage, whatever — might not be exactly what he would hope, when the time comes for a clutch drive, who would you rather have than him? ... I would take him on third down, making a throw or scrambling for the first down, against just about anyone in the sport. He’s a guy who just has a knack for keeping the chains moving, keeping a drive alive and keeping the game alive.
Howard: Right now, he’s a guy playing with extreme confidence. He’s a leader. He’s the guy who everyone else looks toward. He’s very gritty. Just a guy, you want to go into battle with him. He’s battle tested. He’s proven. And he has the respect of not only his teammates, but the opposing team — the defensive coordinators and everyone who has to play against him. He’s highly respected.
What is a Penn State White Out like from your perspective, and how does it rank with other environments you’ve been in?
Herbstreit: The White Out — I made it pretty clear everywhere I’ve been -- the White Out is the best atmosphere in college football. And I’m not just saying that because I’m here. If I get asked that at LSU or anywhere else, I would say that.
I happened to be there in ‘05. I don’t know if that was the first White Out; that’s the first one I really remember walking out of that stadium going, “That crowd was the difference in that game.” I think it was Tamba Hali had a bunch of sacks and Ohio State had Troy Smith and the offensive linemen couldn’t hear and there were a bunch of false starts. They really affected the rhythm of the Ohio State offense.
And, obviously, you guys had some tough years for about three or four or five years. And, once they came back to being a national powerhouse again, I would challenge anybody — not just college football — but in any sport to find a homefield advantage when Penn State does a White Out at night and they’re ranked in the top 10 and they play a top-10 opponent. To me, it’s as good as there is in the country, in any sport. Maybe Premier Soccer over in Europe would have something similar to it, but I had never seen anything like that. I can’t wait to get my phone out and video it again.
Davis: (Asked specifically about basketball and football) There are such different animals between football and basketball. This is an intense atmosphere — we were here for the White Out game against Michigan last year. I would say that it rivaled a Carolina-Duke basketball game, Kansas just about anytime in a big game. ... But football is just so much more — there are more people so in some ways it’s more overwhelming but at the same time, I feel like maybe basketball crowds because of the intimacy sometimes affect play a little bit more, if that makes sense. So it’s hard to compare them but, in terms of just the spectacle and the enjoyment of the big scene, I would say it rivals Duke-Carolina or a Kansas crowd.
Howard: It’s high, it’s very high. It’s one of the best atmospheres in college football. ... This is just a tremendous atmosphere; it really is one of the best. At night time, just that White Out, that was a brilliant idea. Just magnificent.
How has Miles Sanders impressed you in filling Saquon Barkley’s shoes?
Herbstreit: I loved Miles last year. We would see him in practice. I mean, how do you get in with Saquon there? But I was anxious to see him get his opportunity. The thing that surprised me, he looks powerful. He looks more like an old-school Curt Warner, DJ Dozier, Curtis Enis type of guy who’s going to run through arm tackles. And he’s got some quickness to go with it.
I don’t think the nation truly yet knows much about him. And I think after this game, they’re going to have a better feel for what he can bring to the table. To me, he’s a key to the whole operation. Last year, Saquon’s running numbers weren’t necessarily historic. It was getting him involved in the passing game and finding ways to get him in space because of his quickness. With this, you’re seeing a totally different attack because of that power that Miles brings. That opens up the play-action and the stuff that Trace can do. Yeah, I’m impressed. I can’t wait to see him in this game.
Davis: We knew that Sanders was a really good back. Now, those are sizable shoes to fill with one of the all-time greats here in Saquon Barkley. But Sanders has been terrific up to this point. The numbers aren’t appreciably down from what Saquon had.
Howard: Just being himself. Sometimes (when) you have a guy who has to step into the shoes of one of the best running backs that we’ve seen in college football, it’s hard to just be yourself. People have expectations because of the guy that you’re replacing. He runs hard. Really good vision. I think he’s patient. He has a good feel for the position. I really like what I see out of Sanders. He’s going to be tested (Saturday). But he may have an opportunity to break a big one.