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September 22, 2006
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Penn State entered the season with the nation's top linebacking corps.
Paul Posluszny had won the Bednarik Award and Butkus Award a year earlier. Dan Connor appeared on the verge of meriting All-America consideration. Tim Shaw had established himself as a strong and steady presence.
But when the 24th-ranked Nittany Lions (2-1) play at No. 1 Ohio State (3-0) on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m.), the linebacker having arguably the best season will be on the opposite sideline.
James Laurinaitis entered the season without the star power of a Posluszny or Connor, but the Ohio State sophomore has wasted no time making a name for himself.
Laurinaitis burst onto the national scene by collecting 13 tackles, forcing two fumbles and intercepting a pass in Ohio State's 24-7 victory over Texas. He followed that up by recording nine tackles, a sack and an interception last week in a 37-7 whipping of Cincinnati.
"I don't feel like I've arrived yet," Laurinaitis said. "It's an honor for people to think highly of me, but I have a long way to go. I watch film of guys that played here, like A.J. (Hawk) and Bobby (Carpenter), and realize that I have a long way to go."
The main concern surrounding Ohio State before the season involved how the Buckeyes would replace Hawk, Carpenter and the seven other starters they lost from last year's defense.
Laurinaitis and Co. have calmed those fears. The Buckeyes are allowing only 8.7 points per game as they enter the Big Ten portion of their schedule.
"He is obviously a good athlete," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "He's a smart athlete, plays with intelligence and does a good job.
"You have to give the Ohio State coaching staff some credit. They know what they are doing. They make believers out of their kids, and the kids line up properly. Very rarely do you see them out of position. They hustle all the time.''
Now comes the real test.
Laurinaitis must prove that his success outside the conference can carry over to Big Ten competition.
"Coach has been saying all week that when you play games in the Big Ten, it's a whole different level," Laurinaitis said. "It kind of sounds (like a) clich?but the Big Ten will be big and emotional."
This game also represents a chance for Penn State's linebackers to live up to their preseason billing.
Connor has matured into a star this year by collecting 30 tackles and three sacks. Posluszny has recovered well enough from a knee injury to show flashes of his 2005 form. Shaw's versatility has helped him shift to the defensive line to create more playing time for promising sophomore Sean Lee.
Even with all that talent, Penn State's defense looked quite vulnerable in a 41-17 loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago. Notre Dame tight end John Carlson found enough open space in the middle of the field to deliver the best performance of his career.
"The way we played against Notre Dame, that's not the way Penn State defenses play," Posluszny said. "I think now we have a chance to go against a great offense with talented quarterbacks, receivers, running backs. They have the total package. It's going to give our defense a chance to prove ourselves and really find out what we're made of."
This game also gives Posluszny a chance to repeat one of the best performances of his brilliant 2005 season. He recorded 14 tackles and a sack as the Nittany Lions won 17-10 while holding the Buckeyes' explosive offense to its lowest point total of the season.
Laurinaitis compared that loss to a punch in the mouth. One year later, he finally gets to hit back.