Ohio State travels to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in a clash of two of college football’s top teams for the 2018 season on Saturday night. And if the last two matchups between these programs are any indication, Saturday night's matchup between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions has potential to be one of the top games this season. The stakes are high for both teams entering Week 5. The winner of this game will take an early step forward in the race to win the Big Ten East and for positioning for the CFB Playoff.
Urban Meyer returned to Ohio State’s sideline last week after a three-game suspension and guided the Buckeyes to a 49-6 victory over Tulane. Under the guidance of interim coach Ryan Day, Ohio State earned wins over Oregon State (77-31), Rutgers (52-3) and TCU (40-28). As usual, the Buckeyes have plenty of talent on defense, but the offense is more explosive through the air than in recent years. Sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins has passed for 16 touchdowns and completed 75.7 percent of his throws through the first four games.
Penn State’s program has been trending up under coach James Franklin and is primed to push for its third consecutive season of double-digit victories. The Nittany Lions claimed the Big Ten Championship in 2016 and fell just short of another East Division title last season, largely due to a one-point loss in Columbus. Penn State needed overtime to beat Appalachian State in the opener but defeated Pitt 51-6 in Week 2 and earned victories over Kent State (63-10) and at Illinois (63-24) to get to 4-0.
Ohio State holds a 19-14 series edge over Penn State. Three of the last four matchups in this series were decided by seven points or less. The Buckeyes last victory in Happy Valley took place in 2014.
Ohio State at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Ohio State -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio State’s Offense Against Penn State’s Defense
Ohio State’s high-powered offense ranks second nationally by averaging 54.5 points a game in 2018. Under Meyer’s direction, the Buckeyes have ranked near the top of the Big Ten in scoring, so a productive offense isn’t a surprise. However, this unit is more explosive with its passing attack than it recent seasons, largely due to the development of quarterback Dwayne Haskins. In his year as the starter, Haskins has passed for 16 touchdowns to just one interception and completed 75.7 percent of his throws. Haskins isn’t the runner that J.T. Barrett was, but the sophomore can contribute on read plays if the defense keys too much on the running backs.
Helping Haskins’ fast start has been a deep and talented group of receivers on the outside, along with the one-two punch of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber at running back. Parris Campbell (15.7 ypc) is the best of the bunch at receiver, but K.J. Hill (21 catches), Terry McLaurin (nine), Austin Mack (15) and Johnnie Dixon (10) will all factor into the gameplan on Saturday night. Ohio State’s offensive line has surrendered six sacks through four games, and center Michael Jordan had a couple of low snaps against TCU. That’s a small factor to watch on Saturday night.
When Ohio State has the ball, can Penn State find a way to slow down Haskins through the air and Weber/Dobbins on the ground? Needless to say, this will be the biggest challenge of the year for a rebuilt defense under coordinator Brent Pry. The Nittany Lions are only giving up 4.6 yards a play but have been susceptible to the run (172.5 ypg allowed) and has allowed six plays of 30 yards or more. This defense is third in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense but has yet to face a passing attack like the one Ohio State will bring to Happy Valley on Saturday night.
2. Ohio State’s Defensive Line Without Nick Bosa
It’s no secret Ohio State has one of the top defensive lines in the nation. However, the Buckeyes will be missing a key piece of that unit, as end Nick Bosa is sidelined indefinitely due to an injury suffered against TCU in Week 3. With Bosa out, Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper anchor the end positions, with Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers and Davon Hamilton leading the way on the interior. Ohio State’s defense is tied for the Big Ten lead with 15 sacks but its per-carry average has climbed from 2.9 allowed last year to 3.84 in 2018.
While Young and Cooper are certainly capable off the edge, not having Bosa on the field will have some type of impact on Ohio State’s defense. Adding to the intrigue surrounding this unit has been the concerns at linebacker and in the secondary for co-coordinators Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch. The Buckeyes have allowed 11 plays of 30 or more yards and six of 40 or more.
Penn State will counter Ohio State’s defensive front with an offensive line that is deeper and more talented than it has been in recent years. How will Young and Cooper and the other ends hold up in their biggest test of the 2018 season? Can they continue to create disruptive plays off the edge? Or will the Nittany Lions’ front five give quarterback Trace McSorley plenty of room to make plays downfield and open up holes for running back Miles Sanders?
3. Can Penn State’s Offense Generate Big Plays?
As mentioned in the previous section, giving up big plays has been a problem for Ohio State this season. In the matchup against TCU, the Buckeyes had their hands full against a mobile quarterback and a group of speedy skill players. While the big plays are notable, it’s also worth pointing out that Ohio State is only allowing 17 points a game.
When Penn State has the ball, the focus of this matchup will fall on quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders. McSorley accounted for 241 overall yards in last year’s 39-38 thriller and enters Saturday night’s game averaging 249.5 total yards a contest. Sanders has picked up where Saquon Barkley left off, rushing for 495 yards and five touchdowns through the first four games of 2018. The depth and talent of this offense continues at the receiving corps with senior Juwan Johnson, along with rising star K.J. Hamler.
Penn State has recorded nine plays of 40 yards or more this season and will need to add to that total in order to win on Saturday night. If the Nittany Lions can block the front four of Ohio State, there’s a good chance Sanders, Hamler and Johnson can make plays in space. Additionally, McSorley’s mobility will be an asset for coordinator Ricky Rahne to utilize.
The last two meetings between these two teams were instant classics. Ohio State rallied to win 39-38 in Columbus last season, while Penn State scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to take home a 24-21 victory in 2016. What does that mean for 2018? Expect a close game that mirrors the last two matchups in this series. Penn State’s defense will have its hands full with Haskins and the Buckeyes’ passing game, but McSorley and Sanders are tough to contain for four quarters. With both teams likely to score points, this game may come down to whichever team can make a timely stop in the fourth quarter. The guess here is Ohio State does just that, edging Penn State for another close victory.