Saturday October 25th, 2008

We know that Ohio State is 7-1 and ninth in the BCS poll, its slender hopes of returning to a third straight BCS title game riding on Saturday's performance against Penn State in what amounts to a de facto Big Ten title game.

But what of the Jeannette (Pa.) Jayhawks? What of the team that Buckeyes freshman sensation Terrelle Pryor led to last year's 2-A Pennsylvania State title? They've gotta be struggling without their superstar, right?

Actually, the Jayhawks will take the longest winning streak in the state -- 24 games -- into Saturday's clash with rival Greensburg-Central Catholic.

Yes, a Nittany Lions victory will create a four-line highway for Penn State to the national title game. It will pump still more feel-good serum into one of the season's most upbeat stories, with Joe Paterno poised to become the first octogenarian to coach in a BCS title game.

The story line that most intrigues me is the clash of cross-pollinating quarterbacks. The Ohio kid -- Daryll Clark played at Ursuline High in Youngstown -- is the triggerman for Penn State's Spread HD. Pryor, the most gifted Pennsylvania schoolboy in memory, is now among the most beloved figures in Buckeye Nation. All week he has occupied the thoughts of Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who, as it happened, made roughly two dozen trips from State College to Jeannette in his vain attempt to woo the 6-foot-6, 230-pound phenom to Paternoville.

Following in Bradley's footsteps (and his detailed directions -- thanks, Tom), I piloted my rented Kia Sportage west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike last Wednesday, enroute to Columbus from State College. Jumping off at Exit 67, I found my way to McKee Stadium, home of the Jayhawks, whom I guessed would be muddling along at .500.

My sympathy for Jeannette lasted as long as it took senior tailback Jordan Hall to throw down a Maserati-like acceleration on a punt return. Hall, the nephew of Jayhawks offensive coordinator Roy Hall, has verbally committed to the Buckeyes.

"Last year people wanted to describe us as a one-man team," head coach Ray Reitz told me. "But we got players everywhere. We're built on speed."

Reitz's name was bandied about on Ohio talk radio last summer, after he predicted that Pryor would be starting by the midpoint of the Buckeyes season. He was wrong, of course. Pryor was starting by Game 4.

"They were talking [expletive] about me in Columbus," says Reitz, whose considerable football acumen is matched by the saltiness of his vocabulary. "They're thinking, 'What's a double-A high school coach know about the college game?' Well, we have TVs here in Pennsylvania. We watch as much college football as anybody."

Nowhere in the nation were people less surprised by Pryor's early success than on that practice field. "The people who watched Michael Jordan in high school -- we know how they feel," says Reitz. Walking off the field after practice, he pointed to the right corner of the east end zone. It was there the Pryor once gathered himself and leapt over a defensive back from Washington High, taking flight at the five, and landing several yards deep in the end zone.

"No one signaled touchdown," recalls Reitz, who asked his assistants "Who the [heck] was holding?"

But there was no penalty, he relates. The refs hadn't signaled a touchdown because they "froze in awe. They'd never seen anything like that."

Another of Pryor's facets, Roy Hall reminded me, was that Terrelle tends to save his best performances for big games. He is most dangerous when provoked; when he feels he has something to prove. Before last year's playoff game against 2-A nemesis Aliquippa, fans at that school directed an "OVER-RATED" chant in Pryor's direction.

He responded by rushing for 331 yards -- "And it could have been 500," adds Reitz.

Bristling from criticism of his play in earlier wins, Pryor was very much in command while taking apart Michigan State last Saturday in East Lansing.

Where Pryor's journey has been sudden and accelerated, Clark's has been gradual and painstakingly slow. His math scores weren't what they needed to be coming out of Ursuline. Jay Paterno, who coaches the quarterbacks for his father, wasn't positive Clark could handle the coursework at Penn State. So he issued a challenge: spend a year at Kiski (Pa.) Prep, where he would be immersed in a rigorous college-prep curriculum and play football almost as an afterthought.

After deferring his dream for a year to beef up his grades at Kiski, Clark was welcomed at State College, where he ... took zero snaps as a freshman, then rode the pine for two seasons behind Anthony Morelli.

A funny thing happened last spring, and again in fall camp. Penn State's overhauled offense -- the so-called Spread HD, led by Clark -- was way ahead of the defense. "Usually," middle linebacker Josh Hull noted this week, "it's the other way around."

After all the delays and wondering and waiting, Clark has become Penn State's most indispensable player. He has been responsible for 19 touchdowns and 51 of Penn State's 24 plays over 20 yards. To the delight of Nittany Lions fans accustomed to seeing their offense turn conservative in the second half, the unquenchable Spread HD is averaging 45.3 points per game.

Saturday, those numbers will collide with this stark stat: Penn State is 0-7 in Columbus since joining the Big Ten in 1993. The Buckeyes are underdogs in their own house for the first time in four years.

As they should be. Transcendent a talent though Pryor is, I think Penn State will be able to contain him, get him in third-and-longs, take advantage of his inexperience. Next year, and the year after, not so much. Chris "Beanie" Wells will do some damage, but Saturday, I believe, will belong to Penn State.

And, having seen Jeannette practice, I'll take the Jayhawks by a touchdown over Greensburg Central-Catholic.

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