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October 26, 2007

Ohio State has had problems in Happy Valley

MORE: Who has the edge? | Video preview

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel doesn't sound like someone about to head into his team's version of the Bermuda Triangle.

The top-ranked Buckeyes have won at Penn State just once in their past five attempts, with the lone victory coming by a one-point margin in 2003. Ohio State's last regular-season loss came two years ago during its most recent visit to Happy Valley.

So you'd think Tressel would look forward to Saturday's game at Penn State about as much as a kid with a sweet tooth savors trips to the dentist's office. He instead makes the experience sound almost as enjoyable as a visit to Disney World.

"The thing I think you have to do is have great focus, but have fun," Tressel said. "Playing in that type of environment is a fun thing and, again, that's why playing in this league is so much fun."

It would be a lot more fun if Ohio State (8-0 overall, 4-0 in the Big Ten) manages to return home undefeated. That's easier said than done.

Penn State (6-2, 3-2) has won 19 of its past 20 games at Beaver Stadium, though it's worth noting that the Nittany Lions own a modest 6-5 overall record in home night games. One of Penn State's most memorable home night games came in 2005, when the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions edged No. 6 Ohio State 17-10 on their way to winning the Big Ten title. Ohio State has won a school-record 26 consecutive regular-season games since that night.

"That was the loudest crowd I have ever been around and the most energized I've been going into it," Penn State linebacker Dan Connor said.

The Buckeyes are expecting a similar atmosphere Saturday. Reading lips could become just as important as reading defenses.

"You're almost going to have to see what the quarterback is saying in the huddle as opposed to hearing it," Tressel said, "and certainly at the snap you have to see the ball because you're not going to hear the snap count."

That puts plenty of pressure on Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman, a first-year starter who already has performed in hostile environments. He threw two touchdown passes with no interceptions as Ohio State rallied in the second half for a 33-14 victory at Washington, which traditionally has one of the loudest home crowds on the West Coast. Boeckman also threw for 200 yards and two touchdown passes in a 23-7 victory at night over a previously unbeaten Purdue team, though he also threw three interceptions in that game.

He has benefited from the presence of sophomore tailback Chris Wells, who rushed for a career-high 221 yards in last week's 24-17 victory over Michigan State.

While it will be interesting to see how Boeckman fares in such a hostile environment, this game could come down to the performance of the other starting quarterback.

Penn State senior Anthony Morelli absorbed an avalanche of criticism after struggling in back-to-back losses to Michigan and Illinois, but he has played better during the Nittany Lions' ensuing three-game winning streak. He has thrown three touchdown passes and only one interception the past two weeks.

"We have to give him pass protection and have got to be able to handle some things (the Buckeyes) do,'' Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "You are sure not going to take the football and run it down their throat. Can't do that. They are too good for that."

Neither team should expect to score many points. Ohio State is allowing just 7.9 points per game and leads the nation in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. Penn State has given up 15 points per game and ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense.

This game pits three of the nation's top linebackers in Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Penn State's tandem of Connor and Sean Lee. Ohio State also boasts an elite cornerback in Malcolm Jenkins. Penn State's Maurice Evans is one of the nation's hottest pass rushers with seven sacks in his past three games.

All that defensive talent should produce a low-scoring game in which one critical error can make the difference. That explains why the Buckeyes are doing everything possible to make sure a hostile crowd doesn't goad them into an error.

"We're just getting used to each other's hand signals and trying to simulate the sound the best we can," Ohio State wide receiver Brian Robiskie said. "You just have to get used to it the best you can because there is nothing else like it."

MORE: Who has the edge? | Video preview

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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