Earlier in the season, most college football fans looked at Penn State going into Ohio Stadium to face Ohio State as a potential Big Ten East elimination game. For Penn State, the results of the last three weeks have dramatically changed that equation. Penn State lost a hard-fought game 23-20 at Iowa on Oct. 9 and then lost in nine overtimes at home to Illinois last Saturday, 20-18.
Yes, Penn State is still in contention for the Big Ten East (5-2, 2-2 in conference), but the Nittany Lions will need some help from other teams within the division. Penn State will also need to do their part, starting with defeating Ohio State, a team that they have not beaten in Ohio Stadium since 2011.
Penn State head coach James Franklin is doing his best to keep the focus on the tasks at hand, but persistent rumors swirl around Franklin as a leading candidate for the now-vacant head coaching jobs at USC and LSU. Regarding the rumors about other jobs, James Franklin said, "I care what people think and I want to handle things the right way all the time with the players, with the staff, with the administration. ... I want to use the golden rule … treat people the way you want to be treated."
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has the Buckeyes at 6-1 overall, with a 4-0 record versus Big Ten opponents. Even with Penn State's two-game losing streak, Day is not taking anything for granted against a very talented Nittany Lions squad.
At his weekly press conference previewing the match-up, Day said, "When you look at the games we've had with them in the past, they're always a dogfight," Day said at his weekly press conference. "That's just the way it's been. I know it's going to be that way. They have a lot of pride. ... They are one of the best programs in the country. It's hard to beat these kinds of teams. We know when Penn State comes into town, we have to be on our game. This is going to be one of those games. It will be physical back and forth. We have to start fast and be ready to play for four quarters."
No. 20 Penn State at No. 5 Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -18.5
When Penn State Has the Ball
Penn State's offensive output over the last three weeks has declined due to an injury sustained by quarterback Sean Clifford in the 23-20 loss at Iowa. While Clifford had the benefit of a bye week, Clifford returned to action versus Illinois and was visibly struggling, completing 19 passes on 34 attempts for 165 yards and a touchdown. Without Clifford effectively passing the ball to talented wide receivers such as Jahan Dotson, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, or Parker Washington, the Penn State offense becomes too one-dimensional.
Penn State's running game has struggled to consistently gain yards on the ground, with the Nittany Lions only averaging 119.7 yards per game. Penn State only managed 62 yards on the ground last week versus Illinois, with Noah Cain the leading ball carrier at 11 carries for 43 yards.
Ohio State's defense has seen a resurgence since Ryan Day shuffled the duties of the defensive coaches after the Week 2 loss to Oregon. Matt Barnes now calls the defensive plays from the sidelines, while defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs is up in the press box. No matter how the work has been divided, Ohio State's defense has been appreciably better since the change, and it will bear watching to see what type of pressure Ohio State will try to apply on Clifford.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Ohio State has benefitted from resting quarterback C.J. Stroud in their Week 4 59-7 win over Akron. Stroud has responded beautifully, with 14 touchdown passes, no interceptions, and only one sack since his return to the starting lineup.
Stroud is complimented by three outstanding wide receivers in Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. TreVeyon Henderson has earned the starting tailback position but is often relieved by Master Teague III or Miyan Williams as Day tries to keep as many players involved in the offense as possible.
Penn State is, as usual, strong defensively, but the Nittany Lions are suffering from the loss of defensive lineman PJ Mustipher. Illinois was able to run for 357 yards last week, and it will bear watching to see how Penn State will try to shore up their run defense against a formidable Ohio State offensive line.
Clifford's injury has impacted Penn State's season dramatically. While Franklin has stated "We expect to have a 100-percent Sean Clifford this weekend," it will need to be displayed on the field against an improving Ohio State defense that will try to harass and disrupt Clifford and Penn State's passing game.
Ohio State has so many weapons offensively, and now Penn State comes into Ohio Stadium with injuries mounting on the defensive side of the ball. Look for Penn State to keep this game close for the first half, but Ohio State's depth and speed, as well as Penn State's issues, signal that the Buckeyes will win their sixth straight game.
Prediction: Ohio State 42, Penn State 17
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— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.