Penn State's defense, Happy Valley crowd should test Ohio State

He's already outlasted a handful of would-be successors who tired of waiting for him to step aside, and only a lover of the longest odds would bet against Joe Paterno's doing the same to the three current assistants who've been on his staff 20, 29 and 30 years, respectively.

The guy who will be opposite the Penn State legend Saturday night could have, with a tweak of his career path, been one of those frustrated lieutenants, too.

It's hard to imagine Jim Tressel anywhere but in his sweater vest on the Ohio State sideline, since he's been a fixture there over the past seven years.

But before taking OSU to two title games -- and the brink of another with his Buckeyes (8-0 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) currently ranked No. 1 -- there was a day when Tressel coveted a spot as close as he could get to the man he will oppose in Beaver Stadium on Saturday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

It was December 1974, bearing down on his college graduation, when Tressel drove to State College with his father, Lee, who had coached his son at Division III Baldwin Wallace College and would be a fixture there for 23 seasons.

Paterno had a graduate assistant job open, and Tressel wanted it.

At least, the younger Tressel did.

"We had a short discussion," Tressel said. "I told [my father], 'This looks like the place for me,' and he said, 'No, it's not.'"

Tressel's other offer -- the only one forthcoming from the 100 letters he says he sent out -- was from the University of Akron.

"Akron had four full-time assistants and one GA," Tressel said. "Penn State, at that time, had unlimited assistants, back in those days, and eight GAs. And [my father's] rationale was, 'What are you going to get to do?' And now, as I think about it, you know, it makes sense. Back then, though, I was like, 'Who cares? I'll be at Penn State.'"

That was the first time Tressel remembers meeting Paterno, but it was not the first time Paterno remembers meeting him.

"In the old days, when you were coach of the year, there were four or five clinics you had to go to," Paterno said. "Maybe one in Detroit, one in Atlanta, some place like that. So we traveled a little bit together, Lee and I. [We] were not really close friends, but as colleagues in our profession, I knew a lot about him.

"We talked football many times. And Jimmy was a kid. I don't know whether I'm accurate in this, I keep telling Jimmy, I remember when he was this big. He came on the trip with us. I think his dad took him on a trip … [in] '68, '69. He was probably just 11, 12. I don't know."

So, to Ohio State Nation, Tressel might be "The Vest," but to Paterno, he's still "Jimmy."

Five times Tuesday, Paterno called him "Jimmy," still seeing him as this little kid with the buckles on his shoes polished just so.

It's been like that ever since Ohio State hired Tressel in 2001, when Paterno, at the first Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon the two would attend as contemporaries, referred to him as "Little Jimmy Tressel."

Their three matchups in Happy Valley have played out just that way, with Paterno, the wily old teacher, schooling the eager-to-impress pupil.

In the first, back in 2001, Tressel's Buckeyes jumped to a 27-9 third-quarter lead before Penn State rallied for a 29-27 victory that made Paterno the Division I-A career leader with 324 victories.

In 2003, Ohio State was the defending national champion with a vastly superior team, ranked No. 6, while Penn State was headed for a 3-9 finish overall and a 1-7 headache in the Big Ten. Even so, the Lions leaped to a 17-7 halftime edge and nearly pulled the upset before a late touchdown allowed OSU a 21-20 escape.

In 2005, Penn State won for the only time in the rivalry's past 16 installments as the lower-ranked team. With Troy Smith fresh off a two-game suspension for taking $500 from a booster and still without Tressel's confidence to unleash the Buckeyes' considerable weapons, Penn State claimed a 17-10 victory that eventually decided the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth between teams that wound up tied for the conference championship.

Ohio State hasn't lost a regular season game since, running off 26 straight victories, 18 of them in the Big Ten.

"I had not realized the last time they lost a regular season game was against us," Paterno said. "I was not aware of that. I don't particularly look back a lot of times. I can tell you right now they're playing really well."

Indeed, Ohio State's ascent to the top of the BCS standings has been as uneventful as retrieving the morning newspaper from the front porch. The Buckeyes' closest call came last Saturday against Michigan State, 24-17, but the score was more mirage than anything.

The Spartans scored two touchdowns on an interception return and fumble return.

That made two touchdowns allowed by the Ohio State offense this season, with one by its special teams, against just four by the Buckeyes' defense.

So, OSU's national-best 7.9-points-per-game defensive average really is closer to 5.2 points per game, if the 21 points allowed by other units are subtracted from the equation.

It will, therefore, take only the best game of senior quarterback Anthony Morelli's career to keep Penn State competitive. He is eighth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, compared to Ohio State's Todd Boeckman, who is first.

"I think a lot of it depends on Morelli and everybody else," Paterno said. "We have to give him pass protection, and we have to be able to handle some things they do. You are sure not going to take the football and run it down their throat. You can't do that. They are too good for that. This is not a team that you can look at and say, 'They are not solid here, not sound there.'"

Ohio State has the better rushing game, ranking third in the league to the Lions' sixth.

Boeckman won't exactly have free rein, though, given a Penn State defense that ranks second to OSU in every category in the Big Ten.

What is unknown is how decisive an impact an overflow crowd will have on Ohio State's poise and performance. Two years ago, Penn State's student section should have received a helmet sticker -- if only Paterno believed in such adornments -- for its role in disrupting Smith and the Buckeyes.

"I've never seen anything like it," Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "It was the loudest, nastiest place I've ever played. It can be intimidating at times if you let it be, but the crowd is only as loud as you let them be. If you jump on a team early, by the end of the half, the crowd is not a factor. But if you let a team stay with you, then the crowd can become a problem."

Ohio State has not shown many vulnerabilities this season, but one arose against Michigan State. Playing with a cooperative crowd at home, the Buckeyes jumped into five illegal procedure penalties on offense.

"We'd better not be first-and-15 very often," Tressel said. "If you're first-and-15, you're in trouble."

Trouble is one thing the Buckeyes have only a passing familiarity with so far. They trailed 7-3 at the half in Week 3 at Washington and responded with a 30-7 getaway over the final two quarters.

Since then, they've outscored five opponents by a combined 134-7 in the first half.

"We just want to come out and start off fast, hit them hard and try to take the crowd out of it," Jenkins said. "Otherwise, it will probably be a long night."

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is the host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.