The game of the year in the Big Ten is upon us, and Penn State is looking to score a wild upset. Toppling Ohio State has proven to be excruciatingly difficult for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions after two games slipped away from them in each of the last two seasons. This year may be the toughest challenge Ohio State has had to offer for Penn State under Franklin. These Buckeyes are talented at so many positions, it is difficult for Penn State to take away anyone part of Ohio State’s game and expect that will be good enough.
The Nittany Lions come into the week ranked No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings but are still a three-score underdog to No. 2 Ohio State. Considering how Penn State has played the last two weeks, that doesn't feel disrespectful to the Nittany Lions. Closing such a wide gap between the two programs is not a feat that can be accomplished by doing one thing right. It will take a whole checklist of items for Franklin and his staff to check off this week. If Penn State can do enough of the small things, then they could leave Columbus knowing the fate of the Big Ten East will rest in their hands in the last week of the regular season.
So how exactly will Penn State manage to pull off a playoff-shaking victory? Tossing aside the obligatory idea that Ohio State is due for a down week, let's pour that glass half full and see how it can be done.
5 Reasons Why Penn State Will Beat Ohio State
1. Penn State's defense gets back to basics from the start
The Nittany Lions have gotten off to a couple of poor starts the last couple of games. After not allowing a single first-quarter touchdown all season, Penn State has now given up two early scores each to Minnesota and Indiana. Ohio State has more than enough weapons to keep that trend going, but this matchup should bring out the best Penn State has to offer on the offensive line, and that should lead to some better play to start things off.
2. Penn State will survive the second quarter rush
Even if Ohio State doesn't start the game on fire and scoring touchdowns as they have been known to do this season, the second quarter tends to be when they hit fifth gear. The Buckeyes lead the nation in second-quarter scoring with 20.3 points per game in that period. Fortunately for Penn State, the second-quarter defense has been where it has thrived the most on the road. Penn State has allowed just 3.2 points per game in the second quarter when away from home, including games against Iowa and Minnesota. Getting to halftime with the game in a manageable position is the key if Penn State is to have a chance to win this week.
3. Having key offensive players healthy
One of the biggest questions this week is the status of two key offensive players. KJ Hamler left last week's game with an injury and did not return, but James Franklin has noted he is hopeful his top wide receiver will be available. Having Hamler on the field will allow Penn State to have a better chance of stretching the field. Hamler scored on a long touchdown play against Ohio State last year, showing off his speed. Penn State could really use that ability this week.
Freshman running back Noah Cain could have been used last week if Penn State needed him, but Franklin is hoping to be able to get Cain involved this week to mix things up a bit in the running game.
4. Pat Freiermuth is one of the best tight ends in the country
Although he was left off the list of semifinalists for the John Mackey Award, Freiermuth is truly one of the most dangerous tight ends in the nation. He already has seven touchdown catches this season and should be a big target for Sean Clifford this week. That will especially be the objective inside the red zone, but Ohio State will be ready for that. So having another receiver ready to step up and make a play will be essential. Nick Bowers, another tight end may be the best option, as Penn State has used him in the red zone with some success as well.
5. Sean Clifford won't be rattled for long
The Penn State quarterback is rarely short on confidence, and that is a good trait to have in this situation. Clifford has been a bit rusty on the road this season with a slow start at Iowa and a sloppy game in key moments at Minnesota. Playing in Ohio Stadium is certainly the most intimidating task yet, but Clifford will continue to grow form those previous experiences and use that to improve himself. Ohio State may bring consistent pressure, including from returning star Chase Young, but Clifford is not going to buckle under pressure and allow the game to get away from him. If he can avoid making a big mistake, Penn State’s offense can grind out a few drives of importance.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.