Another marquee matchup is slated in the Big Ten this Saturday, as Ohio State hosts Penn State in a crucial game with East Division and CFB Playoff implications. With a win over the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes would claim the division title and bolster a resume that could result in the No. 1 overall seed in the CFB Playoff this December. Despite a loss to Minnesota two weeks ago, Penn State is still squarely in the mix to win the Big Ten and push for a playoff trip. The Nittany Lions need to win on Saturday in Columbus and finish the year with a victory over Rutgers to secure the East Division title.
Behind a dominant defense and balanced offense, Ohio State has cruised to a 10-0 start under new coach Ryan Day. The Buckeyes have won every game by at least 24 points, including victories over ranked teams in Cincinnati (42-0) and Wisconsin (38-7). Ohio State ranked No. 2 in the latest CFB Playoff top 25 but will have a chance to earn the No. 1 overall seed with remaining matchups against ranked teams in Penn State, Michigan and either Minnesota or Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.
Penn State has won at least nine games in four consecutive years under coach James Franklin, but the Nittany Lions are aiming higher in 2019. Despite a loss at Minnesota two weeks ago, Penn State is still in the mix for a trip to the CFB Playoff and Big Ten Championship. Of course, the path to the East Division title runs through Columbus on Saturday – a place Penn State hasn’t won at since 2011
Ohio State holds a 20-14 series edge over Penn State. The Buckeyes have won six out of the last seven over the Nittany Lions.
Penn State at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at Noon ET
Spread: Ohio State -18.5
When Penn State Has the Ball
Penn State enters Saturday’s game averaging 36.8 points a contest and 6.2 yards a play. Both of those totals are actually higher than last year’s group that featured quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders.
With both McSorley and Sanders now in the NFL, coach James Franklin and play-caller Ricky Rahne rebuilt this year’s group around new quarterback Sean Clifford. The sophomore has been steady in his first season as the starter in Happy Valley, throwing for 2,450 yards and 22 touchdowns to just six picks. Clifford isn’t as dynamic as McSorley was on the ground but ranks second on the team with 374 rushing yards. Clifford is already battle tested with wins over Iowa and Michigan, but the sophomore had an uneven performance against Minnesota (three picks) and completed just 47.8 percent of his passes against Indiana last Saturday.
A strong performance by Clifford is a requirement for Penn State to win on Saturday in Columbus. However, Franklin and Rahne have to get the sophomore quarterback more help. The ground game is averaging only 4.1 yards per carry in Big Ten games, and a receiver or two needs to step up to take the pressure off of K.J. Hamler. The sophomore was banged up in the win over Indiana but seems to be on track to suit up on Saturday. Tight end Pat Freiermuth (34 catches) and receiver Jahan Dotson (22) are the only players with more than 12 catches on the team. Additionally, while Journey Brown has posted back-to-back 100-yard games, Noah Cain (350 yards) could return to add another weapon out of the backfield.
The return of end Chase Young after a two-game suspension adds another challenge to Penn State’s offense on Saturday. The Nittany Lions have been solid versus opposing pass rushers (19 sacks allowed) but four of those came against Minnesota and Michigan. The front five will have to keep Young away from Clifford to give Penn State any shot of winning on Saturday. And when Clifford avoids the rush, he will be throwing against an Ohio State secondary that has allowed only six passing scores all season. The Buckeyes have not allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points in a contest this season and are holding teams to just 3.5 yards per play.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Prolific and balanced are the best words to describe Ohio State’s offense this season. The Buckeyes rank sixth in the nation in yards per play (7.3) and first in scoring (51.5 ppg). Day’s offense leads the Big Ten with an average of 287.4 yards a game on the ground, with 254.3 coming through the air.
Quarterback Justin Fields is drawing most of the attention for Ohio State’s offense, as the Georgia transfer has connected on 69.1 percent of his throws for 31 touchdowns and only one pick. Additionally, Fields has rushed for 377 yards and 10 scores on the ground. While Fields is in the midst of a prolific season, running back J.K. Dobbins has been overlooked nationally. The junior paces the Buckeyes with 1,289 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns and also averages a healthy 7.04 yards per carry.
With those offensive statistics in mind, it’s a pick-your-poison game for Penn State’s defense. Do you aim to stop quarterback Justin Fields and a deep receiving corps? Or do you load up to stuff running back J.K. Dobbins? In Penn State’s only loss this season (Minnesota), the secondary was gashed for 339 yards and three touchdowns on only 18 completions. The secondary was under fire once again last Saturday, as Indiana posted 371 yards over 31 completions. Led by standout end Yetur Gross-Matos and linebacker Micah Parsons, Penn State’s front seven has been the strength of this group in 2019. The Nittany Lions are holding teams to just 2.2 yards per carry and lead the Big Ten in rush defense. The matchup on passing downs is worth watching. Can Penn State get to Fields or will the sophomore be able to sidestep the rush and create big plays with his legs? The best front seven Ohio State has played so far (Michigan State) sacked Fields three times. Can the Nittany Lions win up front and provide some help for the secondary?
Penn State’s struggles against the pass over the last two weeks likely provide some insight into how Ohio State plans to attack on Saturday. Fields has been ultra efficient this season and has one of the deepest receiving corps at his disposal. Chris Olave (37), Binjimen Victor (27), K.J. Hill (38) and Garrett Wilson (19) figure to be a handful on the outside or over the middle for Penn State’s defense.
Each of last three matchups in this series have been decided by three points or less. However, another close game would be a surprise. The spread for Saturday’s matchup is nearly three touchdowns (18.5), and Ohio State has dominated in all 10 of its victories this fall. Penn State has a solid resume with wins over Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Pitt. However, the on-field matchups favor the Buckeyes. The return of Chase Young strengthens a strong Ohio State defense, and the balanced attack or ability to hit on big passing plays is a tough matchup for the Nittany Lions. The formula for a Penn State victory starts with a turnover-free performance, wins on passing downs by protecting Clifford to hit Hamler downfield, along with limiting the big plays by Ohio State through the air. That’s a lot to ask. Even with Michigan up next, the Buckeyes pull away late and clinch the Big Ten East on Saturday.