The Big Ten takes center stage once again on Saturday night, as Ohio State travels to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. This clash of Big Ten East rivals was expected to play a key role in shaping which team won the division, but opt outs, injuries and results from the opening weekend for the conference have slightly altered the outlook. While the overall appeal or level of national importance may have dropped a bit, the annual battle between Penn State and Ohio State still ranks as arguably the top matchup to watch in Week 9.
Ohio State kicked off defense of its Big Ten title and national championship hopes with a 52-17 win over Nebraska last Saturday. Quarterback Justin Fields was sharp, connecting on 20 of 21 passes for 276 yards and two scores. As expected, the Buckeyes looked like a team capable of winning it all in the opener. Coach Ryan Day’s squad does have a few areas to address or improve on going forward, but the roster is primed for another run at the national title. Ohio State’s revamped 2020 schedule is favorable, as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are missed in crossover play and rival Michigan comes to Columbus. Saturday night’s matchup at Penn State is the toughest road contest for the Buckeyes this fall.
While Ohio State enters Saturday’s game feeling relatively good about its performance last weekend, Penn State is looking to rebound. The Nittany Lions came into 2020 with hopes of pushing for the division title and a playoff trip. While neither of those goals is out of reach, both took a big hit last Saturday. Despite outgaining Indiana 488 to 211, Penn State fell in overtime 36-35. Three turnovers and three missed field goals, along with questionable end-game management came back to haunt coach James Franklin’s team. After last week’s defeat, there’s no more margin for error if the Nittany Lions want to contend for the conference title in December.
Ohio State holds a 20-14 series edge over Penn State. The Buckeyes have won seven out of the last eight against the Nittany Lions.
Ohio State at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -12
When Ohio State Has the Ball
In last year’s win over Penn State, Ohio State averaged its lowest yards per play (5.02) of any game in 2019. The Nittany Lions managed to hold quarterback Justin Fields relatively in check (188 yards and two touchdowns) but gave up 229 yards on the ground. Penn State’s defense managed to create pressure (three sacks) and also generated a couple of takeaways to slow the Buckeyes last fall. That formula will be critical to replicate once again on Saturday.
The battle in the trenches is the first place to watch when Ohio State has the ball. Penn State’s defense gave up just 3.4 yards per play to Indiana and no play went longer than 21 yards. This group limited running back Stevie Scott to 57 yards over 20 carries, and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was sacked three times. While the opening Saturday was a good performance for this unit, the challenge for the Nittany Lions will be significantly tougher on Saturday night.
In the win over Nebraska, Ohio State’s offensive line and ground game weren’t quite firing on all cylinders. The Cornhuskers were able to generate three sacks and limited the Buckeyes to 4.6 yards per carry. Fields accounted for 54 of the team’s 222 rushing yards, with Trey Sermon (55) and Master Teague III (41) chipping in the bulk of the production at running back. However, with one of the nation’s top offensive lines clearing running lanes, it’s only a matter of time before Sermon and Teague get on track. Penn State’s line is one of the better groups in the Big Ten, but the linebacker unit misses Micah Parsons (opted out) and Jesse Luketa will miss the first half due to a targeting call against Indiana.
Fields was razor-sharp against Nebraska and misfired on just one pass (20 of 21 for 276 yards). Garrett Wilson grabbed seven of those passes for 129 yards and a touchdown, while Chris Olave caught six for 104. Olave left last week’s game with an injury and more will be known about his status prior to kickoff. If he’s limited, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming and Jameson Williams figure to be more involved. Penn State’s pass defense and big plays allowed were a concern coming into 2020. While this group held up well in the opener, Ohio State presents a different (and much tougher) challenge.
When Penn State Has the Ball
It was a mixed bag for new Penn State offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca in the game at Indiana last Saturday. The Nittany Lions totaled 488 yards (5.6 a snap) and converted nine of 17 third-down attempts. However, the offense had just two pass plays of 20 or more yards and had five drives end in Hoosier territory without points.
Ciarrocca was a big-time hire for Penn State and will get the offense sorted out in time. However, the first-year coordinator has to navigate a couple of personnel concerns going into the showdown versus Ohio State. At running back, Journey Brown was ruled out for 2020 prior to the opener, and Noah Cain is sidelined for the rest of the year after suffering an injury against Indiana. With those two players out, Devyn Ford (69 yards against Indiana) and freshmen Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee will handle the carries. Ohio State’s run defense gave up six yards a carry versus Nebraska but 86 of the 217 yards allowed came on two runs. Running back Dedrick Mills was limited to 33 yards on 10 attempts. Quarterbacks Adrian Martinez (77) and Luke McCaffrey (87) had success on the ground, so getting quarterback Sean Clifford (119 rushing yards against Indiana) involved in the run should be a priority for the Nittany Lions.
Clifford had a solid debut as Penn State’s starting quarterback last season and seems poised to build off that for 2020. He connected on 24 of 35 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns but also tossed two picks against Indiana. Playmakers on the outside remain a question mark. Jahan Dotson caught four passes for 94 yards, while tight end Pat Freiermuth grabbed seven for 60 yards and a score. Can the Nittany Lions get more production out of the other playmakers if Ohio State contains Dotson and Freiermuth? This is a huge opportunity for receivers Daniel George, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith to step up.
Winning this battle starts up front for Penn State. In last year’s game, the Nittany Lions allowed six sacks and managed only 99 rushing yards. Even with new faces in the trenches, Ohio State has plenty of talent and pass rushers to put pressure on Clifford. Franklin’s offensive line has room to improve after its performance in the opener. Without better play up front, Penn State’s path to a victory narrows.
Ohio State has dominated this series, but three out of the last four meetings were decided by three points or less. Additionally, Penn State beat the Buckeyes in Happy Valley in 2016 and lost by a point in ’18. Last week’s outcome for the Nittany Lions may have dropped the interest level in this matchup a bit, but Franklin should have his team ready to play and will make things interesting for four quarters. However, Ohio State’s offense has knocked off the rust and is capable of reaching another gear this Saturday. Penn State needs a couple of takeaways and has to force Fields and the Buckeyes to settle for field goals inside of the red zone. The Nittany Lions will battle, but Ohio State simply has too much firepower and pulls away late to seal an important victory.
Prediction: Ohio State 38, Penn State 24
Podcast: Week 9 Preview and Predictions