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Sport Penn State 'living for the underdog role' ahead of matchup with No. 2 Ohio State

17:22  21 november  2019
17:22  21 november  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State's players know well what they will be up against on Saturday.

a man in a baseball game: Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (11) reacts to a defensive play as safety Lamont Wade looks on during their game against Michigan. © Rich Barnes, Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (11) reacts to a defensive play as safety Lamont Wade looks on during their game against Michigan.

Many don't see their trip to No. 2 Ohio State that likely will decide the Big Ten East representative in the conference title game ending up particularly close on the scoreboard.

Can the Nittany Lions' suddenly shaky defense halt the most explosive offense in the country?

Can their offense, which was without injured star KJ Hamler and rugged runner Noah Cain this past weekend, possibly produce enough to stay close?

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Betting lines certainly don't indicate so: The No. 9 Lions are a 19-point underdog, which seems to mirror public perception. 

No matter, the winner will be the front-runner for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

A loss could send Lions sliding all the way to the Outback Bowl.

So talk to Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who never is at a loss for words — just like his mentor and former Nittany Lions linebacker LaVar Arrington. Parsons wears the same No. 11 jersey and is headed toward All-America status, too.

"Since the beginning of the season we’ve been the underdogs. I don’t think nobody counted us to be this good," Parsons said. "We’ve just got to keep going with that mentality. I hope we're the underdogs. I’m living for the underdog role. Underdogs always come out on top." 

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Now, he will go against the Buckeyes and friends he met on the high school recruiting and camp circuit and still stays in touch with — Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, tailback J.K. Dobbins and defensive end Chase Young.

Parsons and Fields were both verbally committed to play for Penn State before backing out. Parsons eventually rejoined the Lions but Fields opted for home state Georgia.

Parsons had also considered playing the Buckeyes out of high school. Fields became one when he decided to transfer after last season.

"Justin’s my guy. I talked to him a couple of times this season. We support each other," Parsons said. "We almost went to the same school twice. Linked up on a lot of visits together."

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Fields, he said, "makes plays on the run. So it’s really going to be speed on speed. We’ve got one of the fastest defenses in the country and they’ve got one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Whoever’s going to be able to limit the other one is going to win.  

"If Justin Fields comes out there and really makes a lot of plays, we'll be in trouble," Parsons said, continuing on. "But if we can limit (him), contain him, I think we'll be alright."

The Penn State players spoke these kind of words confidently and with conviction after hanging on to beat Indiana. But this will be their most lofty challenge, by far.

The Lions' pass defense has been shredded by Minnesota and Indiana the past two weeks for a combined 710 yards. Their highly regarded defensive line has struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks lately and their secondary has tackling issues.

The Lions, though 9-1, have barely held on to beat Pittsburgh, Iowa, Michigan and Indiana.

The undefeated Buckeyes have beaten everyone by at least 24 points. They've scored more than 50 points five times. Fields and Dobbins, a top five rusher nationally, lead their explosive attack. 

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While Penn State's Sean Clifford has been a revelation as a first-time starter at quarterback, Fields has been even more efficient and prolific.

His passing stats seem improbable: 31 touchdown passes against just one interception.

Even more, the Buckeyes also are ranked first nationally in total defense, pass defense and scoring defense. Young is a ferocious defender and is among the national leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. He was a Heisman Trophy candidate before being suspended the past two games for accepting an illegal loan.

He will be back, though, for Penn State.

This all leads to the thought of Ohio State rolling away easily at home, no matter the rankings. The Lions have only won twice in Columbus since joining the Big Ten in 1993.

Of course, most did not give unranked Penn State a chance against the Buckeyes in 2014 when it pushed the eventual national champs to double overtime. Three years ago, again unranked, they shocked the No. 2 Buckeyes in Beaver Stadium.

The past two years have been particularly excruciating. Penn State blew fourth-quarter leads each time to lose by a point.

"Last year was a bitter taste in my mouth," Parsons said. "This is an opportunity for me ... for our guys to prove that we belong, that we can be the best team in the Big Ten. I told people already, this is the Big Ten championship right here. This is going to make or break either one of our seasons. This is it right now.

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"Games like Ohio State-Penn State, this is where you make your name ..."

Certainly, the Lions will need a dramatic defensive effort, much like they got in the second half of that upset in 2016. They will require Clifford to make impeccable decisions with his arms and legs. While his 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions are superb, he's also an underappreciated runner.

He sprinted for a 38-yard touchdown and two key first downs late in the Indiana game.

He grew up in Cincinnati and knows the Buckeyes well, too.

"I'd be lying if I said it isn’t going to be a little bit personal. Any time you go back to where you’re from … that’s always going to be a little extra juice," Clifford said.

"I can promise, this will be the best week of preparation that we have and we will not be denied that."

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Penn State 'living for the underdog role' ahead of matchup with No. 2 Ohio State

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