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October 25, 2013

Beyond the Field: OSU-PSU rivalry heating up

MORE: Where will Holley end up?

Ohio State's most difficult challenge standing between it and a second straight undefeated regular season could be this weekend game against Penn State. But another 12-0 record might not get the Buckeyes into the BCS National Championship game.

The fourth-ranked Buckeyes trail Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon in the hunt for a national title berth, and with little else left on the schedule Ohio State could use an impressive win to bolster its perception -- even as it has to hope for one of the other programs to suffer a loss.

Urban Meyer said the he took time this week to discuss the polls for the first time all season and that his message was to acknowledge the situation and move on.

"We had our first state of the union address on (Monday) and it's the first time that I do talk about polls, because I wanted to let them know they're going to hear it, this BCS thing came out," he said. "My comment was that we are, indeed, in the mix. Embrace it. In the mix for what? Don't worry about it. We are in the mix, though. People think very highly of you. Maybe some people don't. You just have to go out and be the best team on the field on Saturday, not in the country."

Defeating the Nittany Lions may start to change the perception of the programs for some voters, but there is also potential that the game can help swing the recruitment of players whom the two programs are battling over.

This season, the two have already split victories in recruiting as Ohio State continued to move east -- invading an area traditionally reserved for Penn State, Rutgers and few others -- by securing the commitment of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Erasmus Hall four-star receiver Curtis Samuel.

Last week, Penn State won a direct battle for Manahawkin (N.J.) Southern Regional three- star tight end Mike Gesicki, and the two are still competing for Brooklyn (N.Y.) Abraham Lincoln defensive tackle Thomas Holley.

The 6-foot-4, 299-pound prospect is No. 67 in the Rivals100 presented by Under Armour and has already taken trips to both campuses, and many believe Penn State leads for his services.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that while the two programs rarely go toe-to-toe, there are some battles brewing down the line as they venture in opposite lanes of the interstate.

Week Nine of the college football season does not have the most attractive slate of games. There are four games between ranked programs, but the featuring of unranked Penn State at Ohio State tells the tale about the other games.

The game between No. 5 Missouri and No. 21 South Carolina may have greater national impact, but it has little to do with recruiting. The same can be said for No. 6 Stanford traveling to No. 25 Oregon State as the two Pac-12 programs rarely overlap for the same prospects as the Cardinal deal with academic restrictions and the Beavers feast on junior college players and under-the-radar high school players to fill the roster.

A pair of top 15 games have drawn the eye of Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell this week.

In the Big 12, No. 15 Oklahoma will be defending its home field against No. 10 Texas Tech. The Red Raiders hope to help its fellow in-state brethren put another brick in the wall around the state to keep the Sooners out.

"Texas Tech has some momentum now with Kliff Kingsbury going back to that offense that puts up a bazillion yards a game, but if the program ever beats Oklahoma for a kid it is still going to be considered an upset," Farrell said. "Texas Tech and Baylor are starting to become more attractive options for kids, but they are still below Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma.

"I don't know if Oklahoma can afford to be losing too many games to teams inside Texas or that could change -- and dropping to Texas this year wasn't good -- but right now it would still get the kids it wants against Texas Tech. Perceptions can change quick so this is more important for Texas Tech."

Elsewhere, Oregon is currently No. 3 in the nation and could use a major victory over No. 12 UCLA in the race for that coveted No. 2 spot in the BCS standings.

The two do not run the same offense, but they do go after similar skill position players and that may provide some crossover recruiting battles.

Farrell said that UCLA needs this statement more than Oregon, at least in the recruiting world.

"The amount of talent that hasn't been determined to have a leader is pretty big out west," Farrell said. "With USC being down and California being pretty terrible, this is a game that could start to shuffle the order of desirable programs in the conference.

"Right now Oregon leads with Stanford and UCLA being right there and while they don't go head-to-head too often, it is increasing. UCLA needs to showcase for the kids in Los Angeles more than it needs to try and push Oregon out of NorCal. Oregon just keeps scoring and showing what it has on campus and on the field and it is becoming a national player, and winning this game convincingly will add to that."

"Ohio State is trying to get into some more mid-Atlantic states while Penn State has started pushing into Ohio more than normal," he said. "I think Penn State needs to get a victory on the field to start pushing Ohio State back out of Maryland, New York, and New Jersey. It already beat Michigan -- which was trying to do the same thing -- and a win on Saturday would help.

"Ohio State is more consistently going after elite athletes and picks its spots when to venture out of its hotbeds, so it is somewhat different, but it has to be noticing what Penn State is doing in recruiting, for sure. I think that you will see more direct competition in the class of 2015 and on down the road than this class."

Farrell said Meyer was the best recruiting head coach in the country, adding that he believed Bill O'Brien was doing the best job in recruiting based on the position he stepped into at Penn State.

Ohio State is currently No. 3 in the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings with 18 verbal pledges; Penn State is outside the top 25 and has three fewer commitments. The NCAA lessening the sanctions the program received due to the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case may open the door for Penn State to make a run.

Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said he has been impressed with what Penn State has done in recruiting.

"I just think that (O'Brien) is doing a good job overall, considering all the circumstances that have been presented to him," Warinner said. "He's done a good job of preparing his team. He's doing a good job of recruiting and selling his vision for his program. And when you do those things and you're a good person, and obviously he wouldn't have gotten that job if he wasn't a good person, a good football mind. So people can relate to him, I'm sure, and people probably like him. They have a football tradition there, too.

"All things put together, I think he's focusing on what positives he can sell and what they're doing well and what their future is and not focusing on the things he can't control that came before he got there. That combination I think and then their proximity to a lot of players on the east coast helps them as well. And they recruit hard. They don't just hope you come. They recruit guys. They go after them and recruit them hard."

For Penn State to be successful it will lean on true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Hackenberg is a former five-star prospect from Fork Union (Va.) Military who has thrown for 1,672 yards and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions while completing 58 percent of his passes.

O'Brien said that he trusts his signalcaller to settle into a hostile road environment.

"I think that one of the things that has struck me about Christian since the day I met him, which was at junior day almost two years ago now, a year and a half ago, whatever, is his demeanor," O'Brien said. "He's a calm guy. He's got a quiet confidence about him. He understands that it's football. It's a part of his life. It's a big part.

"I think when the game starts, everybody involved is really just focused on the game, not the 90,000 people, 100,000 people that are sitting in the stands. You have to deal with the noise and things like that, but you're just very focused on what your job is on that play and on the next play and on the next play."

Farrell said that landing Hackenberg was a seminal moment for O'Brien and the Penn State program moving forward.

"It was huge to get him and keep him," Farrell said. "I think O'Brien is a good recruiter because he is a personable guy, maybe more than people give him credit for. He is from that no-nonsense school like Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, but he is much more able to relate to kids. That isn't a knock against Saban because he doesn't struggle to recruit and win, but O'Brien has a personality much different than those guys when it comes to relating to kids."

Hackenberg has embraced his role on the team and has already become a fixture in recruiting players to join him.

Gesicki said after Hackenburg and fellow true freshman Adam Brenneman hosted his official visit, Penn State was the place for him.

"Those guys are my kind of guys," Gesick told Rivals.com. "When I really got to know them, that's when I knew that this was probably the best place for me. Those guys are great people, great players and they're real honest about everything.

"They made me feel welcomed and I can't say enough about how excited I am to be part of their team."

While the result of this weekend may not be a tipping point for many players outside of Holley, it could start turning the tide for the future of both programs.

"Any loss is not good," Farrell said. "For programs like Ohio State and Penn State which people expect to be winning, there are not many moral victories.

"O'Brien set the bar pretty high last year and while they aren't favored to win, it is a game that people are paying attention to. Ohio State needs to win to stay in front of the pack in the Big Ten, that has to be the goal for both teams: win."

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