In the back of his mind, Jordan Hill always knows.
Every time he tugs on that victory bell. Every Saturday he peels off those shoulder pads. Every night his head smacks that pillow. Hill knows his time is growing short. He can sense his Penn State hourglass running low.
"I just feel the clock ticking more and more now with the season coming to an end," the defensive tackle said. "We only have five games left, so I feel a sense of urgency."
Maybe he considers Ohio State the most important game of his career, because he doesn't wish to look ahead. Not because of some take-it-one-day-at-a-time coaching cliche, but because he doesn't want to move past this unforgettable season or his career's final White Out.
Is Ohio State the Nittany Lions' biggest rival?
"Yes, they are," Hill said.
How huge is this game?
"It's the biggest game for us," Hill added.
Ask any player, senior or underclassman, about Ohio State and Hill's iteration will be echoed on some level. Biggest game ever? Maybe not, but it's clear this game means much more than a contest that, on some level, amounts to little more than an exhibition.
A win here means players can finally erase those question marks off their foreheads, glance down at the Big Ten standings and call themselves the best -- even if it might be just for a week. A win here means, despite sanctions or transfers, coaching changes and scandals, this football team will not not surrender those blue jerseys for white flags.
"It shows the kind of character we have on this Penn State team and, given everything that we've been through as a team and everything that has stood in our way -- whether it's been a sanction or a transfer -- we just have the kind of guys that smile through adversity and take it on," said linebacker Michael Mauti, who overcame a torn ACL last fall to rise to the Butkus Award semifinals. "A win like that would definitely be a big deal for our program moving forward."
Bill O'Brien likes to deflect pressure and controversy, sometimes trading in absurd replies for honest ones. What was the coach yelling at that Northwestern referee? Oh nothing, O'Brien explained, he was yelling at himself. Why didn't the coach plug in Steven Bench after PSU led 31-0 against Iowa? Well, O'Brien said matter-of-factly, the game simply wasn't in hand.
But is this Ohio State game important? Even O'Brien couldn't describe it any other way. "For me to sit up here and say it's not a big game, that's crazy," he remarked on his 43rd birthday. "This is Ohio State."
Call it the Emmert Bowl. Or the Inelligi-Bowl. Or the Battle of the Banned(s). Neither team can advance to the postseason but, whatever you call it, players know there's something more to this. Penn State can show its second chance translates into a second return to the top. Beating the Big Ten's lone undefeated team, one offseason after watching 10 offensive starters leave for one reason or another, sends a statement.
And what would that statement say? Well, Hill didn't want to look ahead to ringing those victory bells yet. He likely didn't want to look past practice on Wednesday.
"You just want to do as much as possible before it's over,' he said.