Column: Some little guys have big plans, too
It's a guaranteed payday, sure, but there's rarely much glory in being the opponent. The way it usually works, a small school opens the college season against a much-bigger one at their place, with little more than a puncher's chance of winning. By the luck of the draw, the first team to venture into the Nittany Lions' den in the post-Paterno era turns out to be Ohio U.
''We've been at it a little more than three weeks now and we've prepared well in practice,'' Bobcats coach Frank Solich began Tuesday. ''This week we've addressed how, if we're going to be as good as we think we are, we've got to be great on the road. We've talked about the travel, the hotel, all the other distractions, we've even cranked up the sound at practice the last couple of days to give the players a sense of what it's like to play in front of 108,000 people.
''But I've been in that stadium before,'' he added a moment later. ''And the noise we're simulating is not close to what we're going to get.''
Solich has plenty of big-game experience, but he knows replicating the emotional pitch at Penn State is tougher still. Before taking over at Ohio seven years ago, his first head-coaching job came in 1997 at Nebraska. There, Solich had to follow the equally legendary Tom Osborne after 19 seasons as one of Osborne's assistants. He was eager to get started then, the way his Penn State counterpart, Bill O'Brien, will be Saturday afternoon. But Solich knows plenty of things about this debut will be different, too.
The child sex-abuse scandal centered around former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky cost Joe Paterno his job, his legacy, and may have even hastened his death from cancer last January. The NCAA sanctions levied in July left many in Happy Valley seething.
''After what happened, they'll have that circle-the-wagons mentality. They've been through a lot,'' Solich said. ''They lost nine or 10 players through transfers, but those that stayed will be united in what they want to be about this season. In the end, they'll be ready to do what they've done for many years at Penn State, which is play excellent football. They'll want to set the tone early. We'll have our hands full right from the start.''
But little guys sometimes harbor big plans, too. Solich has been preparing for this kind of game almost from the moment he arrived at Ohio U.
In recent years, his teams have taken games against Pitt, Illinois, Tennessee, Rutgers and Ohio State - twice - to diminish the fear factor implicit in facing big-time programs on the road. Plus, these Bobcats are coming off a 10-4 season after winning six of their last seven, a MAC East Division title, and their first-ever bowl game - with even bigger things expected this time around. Solich's staff at Ohio has remained largely intact throughout his tenure, and in quarterback Tyler Tettleton, he's got a fourth-year quarterback who knows the system intimately, handles pressure well and just completed the most productive season of any passer in school history.
''We like our chances,'' said Tettleton, who comes by his confidence easily. He's the son of two-time former All-Star catcher Mickey Tettleton of the Texas Rangers. ''Anytime you're going up against a team that's in the BCS, the Big Ten and it's the first game of year, there's obviously going to be a lot of emotion - especially after what happened there. ... Being a college football fan, I followed it. It was a tough situation. The victims will be in our thoughts and prayers, but at some point it's going to be a football game like lots of other games.
''And being honest, I'll admit we're excited to play in front of that big a crowd, with that many more people watching, because we'll know pretty quick whether the goals we set - a Top 25 ranking, getting back to the MAC Championship and another bowl game - are realistic.''
Solich believes that if that question is answered early in the game, it won't be response the Bobcats are hoping for. He expects the Nittany Lions to ''surge'' at the start of the game - ''It's bound to be physical, we're going to have to match that intensity with some of our own right away - and given the emotions roiling the crowd, more than once or twice afterward.
''At some point, maybe when the game is close and they're building momentum, all that nervous energy in the crowd is going to give them a lift,'' Solich continued. ''And we've told our players, `Nobody in the stands is going to come down and contribute. It's going to come down to the guys on the field, so don't forget those are the only people you're playing.
''We've proven we're a pretty good football team, and we've played that way in tough situations against some storied programs in the past. And as long as we don't forget that,'' he said finally, ''we should be all right.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.