Buckeyes, Paterno fight back against critics, odds

It may gall the patrons of High Street to hear it, but the nation wrote off Ohio State six weeks ago.

That would be about the time the Buckeyes trudged off the grass and up the concrete tunnel at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, singing that song from the musical "Wonderful Town," the 2003 Broadway revival.

Why oh why oh why oh
Why did I ever leave Ohio?

Typical American college football fans know about Script Ohio and The Horseshoe and The Ten-Year War. They know that Ohio State long ago received membership in the sport's elite. They know that even with all that glory, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel is in the midst of the most successful run in the history of the scarlet and gray.

It's just that the typical American college football fan these days is scared to death that Ohio State will win the rest of its games and play in the BCS Championship Game again. The Buckeyes have played in the past two, and FEMA is still trying to assess the damage.

So when this season started, and USC defeated Ohio State 35-3 in the Buckeyes' third game of the season, you could hear the sighs of relief from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Tuscaloosa. It looked as if the national championship party could be held without the Buckeyes around to pour vinegar into the punch bowl.

To coin a phrase: Not so fast, my friend.

The Team That Won't Go Away has come back. With five straight victories, topped off by a -- go ahead and say it -- BCS-worthy, 45-7 rout on the road of Michigan State, Ohio State has played well enough to return to the top 10. That leaves it in the championship waiting room, poised to pounce the minute Texas, Alabama and, yes, Penn State should fall from the ranks of the unbeaten.

That is the beauty of Ohio State's game on Saturday night (ABC, 8 ET). The No. 9 Buckeyes (7-1, 4-0 in Big Ten) will play the No. 3 Nittany Lions (8-0, 4-0). With an upset victory at Ohio Stadium, Ohio State may no longer be met with universal eye-rolling.

Anyone who has heard the disciplined messages of Tressel will understand that this is not a subject he has broached with his team.

"We never mention it," Tressel said. "In August, we talk about an ultimate goal: See if we can earn our way into the top two teams in the country, play for that championship, see if we can become champions. After that, it's never mentioned again."

It usually isn't difficult for Ohio State to knock off Penn State. The Nittany Lions are 0-7 in The Horseshoe since they joined the Big Ten Conference. Penn State last won at Ohio State in 1978, when the Buckeyes started a freshman quarterback who played beyond his years. Terrelle Pryor, based on early returns, is expected to have a more productive career than Art Schlichter.

This Penn State team has been one of the bigger surprises of the 2008 season, at least to those outside of the Nittany Lions' football building. Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said Thursday that, by the end of spring practice, this team gave off a vibe that felt a lot like the 2005 team that went 11-1.

You remember that season. Veteran coach Joe Paterno, hounded by critics who believed he had passed retirement age long ago, came within a last-play loss to Michigan of his fifth undefeated record.

Three years later, Paterno, 81, is in the last year of his contract. He began the season again confronted by questions of how long he would coach; that's what happens after consecutive records of 9-4, with a cumulative record of 9-7 in the Big Ten.

The president of the university has not committed to allowing Paterno to stick around for 2009, which would be his 60th season of Penn State football and his 44th as head coach. His right hip hurts so bad that Paterno is reduced to sitting in the press box for games.

And if eight games are any indication, Paterno has his best team since 1994. Those Nittany Lions went undefeated and had three of the first nine picks in the NFL draft the following April. The new Spread HD has been the ideal vehicle for a smart, experienced offense led by late-blooming redshirt junior Daryll Clark.

If Joe Paterno is measured not by the calendar but by the same criteria by which his peers are judged -- wins -- then he has defied his critics once again.

That may be the best way to look at the game Saturday night:

The Team That Won't Go Away is playing The Coach Who Won't Go Away.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.