There’s no national championship up for grabs and it won’t even take place on the bright lights of the BCS stage, but it’s tough to consider a New Year’s Day matchup between Penn State and LSU anything but marquee.
The 11th-ranked Nittany Lions and 13th-ranked Tigers haven’t played since the end of Joe Paterno’s eighth season in Happy Valley, but they’ll meet again Friday in the Capital One Bowl as Paterno looks to cap his 44th year by adding to his record 23 postseason victories.
Penn State (10-2) had a shot at making a second straight BCS appearance after finishing in the top 14 of the final BCS standings, but home losses to Iowa and Ohio State - the Big Ten’s top two teams - ultimately kept the Nittany Lions out.
That Penn State was even in consideration despite lacking a win over a ranked opponent was mainly due to a fan base that travels well and Paterno, whose record of 393 wins among major college coaches appears safer by the day with the pending retirement of Florida State’s Bobby Bowden.
The best victory in the bunch for Paterno’s 21st 10-win team was tough to pinpoint, however. The Nittany Lions were outscored 45-17 and held to an average of 254.0 yards of offense in their two losses, but their six conference victories came by an average of nearly three touchdowns - with a 42-14 rout at Michigan State in their finale the most lopsided.
“There’s a lot being said about us not being able to win the big game,” said Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, named the Big Ten’s co-MVP. “We’ve asked for a big game and we’ve asked for a worthy opponent, a really good opponent and we found one in LSU.”
Even though their wins came against opponents who went a combined 56-64, Paterno wasn’t discouraged.
“I don’t look at it that way,” he said. “Ten games, it’s tough to win these days. I don’t care who you play or when you play them.”
Penn State and LSU (9-3) have met once - a 16-9 Nittany Lions win in the 1974 Orange Bowl that capped Paterno’s third of five unbeaten seasons.
Clark led the conference with 23 touchdown passes and was also the league’s highest-rated passer (145.7), but against LSU, he’ll need to avoid the turnovers that have plagued him during Penn State’s losses. Clark has thrown 39 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in winning 21 starts, but he’s tossed three TDs and seven INTs - three in a Sept. 26 loss to Iowa - in his four losses.
The Tigers forced 36 turnovers in 14 games and allowed 288.8 yards per game on their way to winning the 2008 BCS championship, but they have not had the same success since. LSU has created 37 turnovers in 25 games the last two seasons - three in its final five regular-season games.
Of equal concern was the amount of yardage the Tigers allowed in their final four contests. LSU had allowed 293.0 yards per game as it started 7-1, but gave up 393.8 in splitting its last four games.
That defense squandered a 17-6 halftime lead in LSU’s Nov. 28 finale against Arkansas before Josh Jasper kicked a 41-yard field goal at the end of regulation and a 36-yarder in overtime to give the Tigers a 33-30 win.
While Miles has a long way to go to match Paterno’s total of bowl victories, no coach has gotten more out of his team in the postseason recently. Since Miles arrived from Oklahoma State before the 2005 season, LSU has won its four bowl games by an average of 28.5 points.
“I don’t know that there’s any magic to it in any way,” Miles said. “I just think our guys get to the back end of the season and recognize the opportunity to play a quality opponent and win a (bowl game).”
Despite their bowl track record, the Tigers will be hard-pressed to score on Penn State. While quarterback Jordan Jefferson has played better of late - he threw nine touchdowns and three interceptions in his last five games - LSU ranks 108th in total offense (309.7 yards per game).
That offense figures to struggle even more if tailback Charles Scott can’t go. The Tigers’ leading rusher broke his collarbone in early November and missed the last three games, though he returned to practice Dec. 14 and currently is questionable.
LSU might be desperate to see Scott play considering backups Keiland Williams (broken ankle) and Richard Murphy (knee) are almost certainly out. Speedy senior all-purpose back Trindon Holliday could get more carries as well.
Regardless of who receives the bulk of the carries, the Tigers will face a stiff challenge up front. Penn State’s defense is 10th nationally against the run (93.9 ypg), eighth overall (277.1) and allows the fourth-fewest points per game (11.8).
The Nittany Lions, as usual, have a talented trio of linebackers in Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and leading tackler Josh Hull, but it’s tackle Jared Odrick - the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year - who gets them started up front.
“Any time a defensive lineman can squeeze more than one offensive lineman, it allows us to flow free to the ball,” Hull said. “He’s done that the entire season to allow me to be very productive.”
Penn State is 1-3 in the Capital One Bowl, while LSU is 1-1, losing 30-25 in 2005 on a last-second touchdown pass in Nick Saban’s final game as coach.