The door to the left of the lectern opened and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer walked hastily into the team meeting room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for his weekly Monday press conference. He had no time for any opening statements.
“Just jump right into questions,” Meyer said, gruffly.
He had no time for pontificating; no time for questions. Meyer wrapped up his weekly conference faster than usual, hustling out the same door he entered 11 minutes prior.
He had just one thing on his mind: revenge.
Last season, Penn State nearly ruined Ohio State’s season as a swarm of Nittany Lion fans wearing white stormed the field following their team’s upset of the then-No. 2 Buckeyes while those wearing scarlet and gray slunk back to the locker room with their season seemingly in shambles.
Though coaches normally shy away from publicly claiming avenging defeat as a catalyst for a statement victory, Meyer was blunt.
“Is revenge a motivator?” Meyer asked. “Hell yeah it is.”
Not much motivates teams quite like memories of a loss to a conference opponent.
“We were just stunned. We didn’t respect a really good opponent and kind of took for granted winning,” redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard said Wednesday.
This season, Ohio State will not be surprised by the Nittany Lions. The Buckeyes believe they are ready for what will be one of their stiffest challenges of the season.
Meyer said Penn State has “one of the top offenses in America.” He called running back Saquon Barkley “the best all-purpose guy we’ve probably faced in probably, maybe my career.” Barkley, a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, has rushed for 757 yards — 6.5 yards per carry — and has racked up a team-leading 32 catches for 448 yards.
Meyer said Penn State has “the No. 1 pass defense in America.” The Nittany Lions rank first in the nation in pass defense efficiency (94.02).
If Ohio State hopes to win, it must slow down the best running back in college football and penetrate one of the best pass defenses in the country. It needs to limit dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley and protect quarterback J.T. Barrett from a rampant defensive line that decimated the Buckeyes’ offensive line in their previous meeting. Last year, the Nittany Lions picked on right tackle Isaiah Prince, who will have an opportunity to show his improvement on a grand stage.
That’s no small task. But whether this season will be deemed a success relies on it.
For Ohio State, anything but a berth in the College Football Playoff will be seen as a failure. The Buckeyes’ game versus Penn State marks the turning point in the season, just as it unexpectedly did last year. Will 2017 be a disappointment or will Meyer’s team position itself in the conference’s driver’s seat?
If Ohio State defeats the Nittany Lions, it will be the heavy favorite to win the conference. Sure, it will have to take down Michigan on the road, No. 16 Michigan State and likely No. 5 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, but optimism would be high following a win against the team many presume to be the best in the conference. If Ohio State wins out, it would earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
But if the Buckeyes lose, their chances of reaching the playoff vanish. They entered the season with three season-defining games — matchups against Oklahoma, Penn State and Michigan. They would have failed their first two true tests of the year, effectively turning their season into an instant dud.
Either Ohio State enacts revenge, upsets the No. 2 team in the country and becomes the favorite to win the Big Ten, or its season would be viewed as a flop. There is no middle ground.
The Buckeyes cannot look too far ahead. This season-defining matchup comes at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
The page flipped quickly from Ohio State’s off week and Penn State’s 42-13 victory against Michigan to Ohio State versus Penn State.
Just six minutes after Penn State’s decisive win Saturday night, redshirt senior center Billy Price tweeted, “#BeatPennState.” At head coach James Franklin’s postgame press conference, the Penn State head coach picked up a phone, saw the time was 11:23 p.m. and said the Nittany Lions had just 37 minutes to celebrate the win.
“I’m not talking about the next opponent,” Franklin said, referring to Ohio State, following his team’s win Saturday. “Enjoy the heck out of this win for the next 37 minutes and then the next day, we’ll focus on the next opponent.”
Those 37 minutes are up. Now it’s time to see whether the Buckeyes will have their revenge or watch their season end at the hands of the Nittany Lions.