- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas for the Buckeyes as they hit the road for a crucial division clash versus Penn State The game will be televised live on ESPN at 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday from Beaver Stadium.
Health nut: The message was clear from Braxton Miller after he wrapped up the second of Ohio State's two meaningful practices this week. The sophomore quarterback left no doubt that he was feeling fine, and a bit of lingering soreness in his neck wasn't going to keep him off the field or change the way he plays.
The Buckeyes are going to need Miller to get back to his old tricks in a hostile environment against one of the best defenses they'll face all year, and, given the circumstances, he might also have a huge opportunity to impress voters by bouncing back from a trip to the hospital with a vintage performance. Individual honors don't seem to motivate Miller much, but the Buckeyes will need him to show off his acceleration, elusiveness and the kind of toughness he displayed at Michigan State to stay unbeaten -- and maybe some hardware could come with it.
Noah's mark: The first converted linebacker now has two games under his belt, and Zach Boren appears to be settling into that role comfortably after moving over from fullback. The second game already had some experience working at the second level at times this season, but the Buckeyes have increased the workload there for Nathan Williams -- and now he's had an extra week to settle in at linebacker.
The Buckeyes might not have been able to make that second adjustment defensively if not for the development of freshman Noah Spence, and the pass-rushing threat is going to need to find his way to the quarterback to help disrupt a quarterback who has been on a roll throwing the ball and avoiding turnovers. Ohio State has the same talented pieces up front with John Simon and Johnathan Hankins providing a combination few teams can match, but Williams proved how invaluable it is to have a bookend for Simon on the other edge -- and the pressure figures to be on Spence to provide that.
First is foremost: The Buckeyes couldn't turn reverse their trend of starting slowly last week, though they again raced through the finish line to knock off Purdue. But on the road in a noisy, charged-up stadium against a much better opponent, the need to get out of the blocks well and quiet the Penn State crowd will be much more important.
And Penn State has a trend of its own -- one that is pretty much the exact opposite of Ohio State's. The Nittany Lions haven't allowed a single point in the first quarter this season and have outscored opponents a combined 66-0 in the opening 15 minutes. The Buckeyes have survived early rough patches and thrived down the stretch pretty much all season, but the blueprint for them will be to match the touchdown they put on the board right away against Michigan State, in order to deflate the home fans and steal the momentum.
Special delivery: There is seemingly no middle ground on special teams. Either the Buckeyes are scoring touchdowns, blocking kicks and generating big plays or they're getting burned by missed assignments and paying a significant price for it.
All the units are getting stretched pretty thin as injuries mount, and the Piranha kickoff coverage unit has been hammered the most. It is effectively out of the playmakers who earned the group that nickname in the first place. Perhaps that will encourage Urban Meyer to bang a few more kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks as one quick fix, because the Buckeyes can ill afford to give up easy touchdowns on special teams like they did a week ago to hand Purdue a lead.
1dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
5dDan Murphy and Brian Bennett