Columbus is the epicenter of college football’s Week 9 slate, as Penn State takes on Ohio State in a must-see Big Ten matchup between two of the nation’s top teams. The stakes are high in this conference matchup, as the winner of Saturday afternoon’s contest between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions will take a big step forward in winning the Big Ten’s East Division. And of course, there are major CFB Playoff implications. The first rankings will be released on Tuesday, Oct. 31 and the winner of this one should be inside of the top four.
Ohio State started its season with a 49-21 road win at Indiana but lost in Week 2 at home to Oklahoma (31-16). The defeat to the Sooners was an early setback for coach Urban Meyer’s program and showcased a few deficiencies this team still had to iron out before a run at the Big Ten title. Since that loss, Ohio State has been on a roll. The Buckeyes have claimed five victories in a row and none of those games were decided by less than 30 points. In addition to the implications for 2017, revenge is on the mind for Meyer and his team. Penn State upset Ohio State 24-21 in Happy Valley last fall, which prevented the Buckeyes from playing for the Big Ten Championship.
Penn State is in the midst of a difficult three-game stretch, but coach James Franklin’s team crossed off one hurdle with a win over Michigan last Saturday. The Nittany Lions thoroughly dominated the Wolverines due to a monster effort from quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, along with another standout performance from the defense. Penn State enters this matchup ranked inside of the top three in most polls, but the next two weeks are critical for this team’s hopes of a repeat trip to the Big Ten Championship. After the game in Columbus, the Nittany Lions travel to East Lansing to play Michigan State. That’s the last team remaining on Penn State’s schedule with a winning record during the regular season.
Ohio State holds a 18-14 series edge over Penn State. The Buckeyes have won four out of the last five meetings. The last victory for the Nittany Lions in Columbus took place in 2011.
Penn State at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Ohio State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio State’s Offense
After losing to Clemson 31-0 in last year’s Fiesta Bowl in the CFB Playoff, it was clear Ohio State’s offense needed a reboot. Coach Urban Meyer wasted no time with changes, as former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson was hired to call the plays in early January. But the optimism for this group didn’t last long. The Buckeyes started slow on offense in the win against Indiana and managed only 16 points and 5.1 yards per play in the Week 2 loss against Oklahoma. However, the narrative on this offense has changed since the defeat to the Sooners. Ohio State’s offense appears to be back on track after scoring 54 or more points in each of the last four games, including 62 against Maryland and 56 versus Nebraska.
The recent production is certainly a positive sign for Meyer and Wilson, but this unit has yet to be tested by a defense like the one Penn State brings to Columbus on Saturday. Were the performances after Oklahoma simply a product of questionable competition? Or is the Ohio State offense really firing on all cylinders under Wilson? Saturday’s game should provide answers.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett took a lot of criticism after the loss to Oklahoma but has been on fire since that game. The senior has not tossed an interception in each of his last five games and has completed at least 64 percent of his passes in each contest during that span. Barrett isn’t just living off a bunch of short passes or quick tosses out of the shotgun. Rather, he’s averaging 13.3 yards per completion and leads all Big Ten quarterbacks with five completions of 50 or more yards. Barrett is still a dynamic option on the ground (359 yards and five scores) and the ability to make plays on the ground is critical with Penn State’s pass rush on tap. In addition to Barrett’s development, the receiving corps has also turned a corner. Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill are tied for the team lead with 28 receptions, and Johnnie Dixon is averaging a healthy 27.6 yards per catch on 10 grabs this year. Binjimen Victor (18 catches), Terry McLaurin (20) and tight end Marcus Baugh are just a few of the other options available to Barrett. Even though the passing game has been taking over the spotlight for this offense in recent weeks, don’t forget about the ground game. The one-two punch of J.K. Dobbins (775 yards) and Mike Weber (227 yards) is as good as any in college football.
Penn State’s defense enters Saturday night’s game giving up just 9.6 points a contest. This unit has yet to allow an opponent to score more than 19 points and leads the Big Ten by limiting offenses to 3.98 yards per play. Coordinator Brent Pry’s group has been effective against the run (115.3 ypg allowed) and is first nationally versus the pass. Additionally, Penn State is active around the line of scrimmage (24 sacks) and doesn’t allow much in the way of big plays.
Is Ohio State’s recent production on offense legitimate or was it the product of questionable competition? And even if the Buckeyes are improved on offense, will Penn State’s defense simply prove to be too much? We should find out a lot about both groups when this game kicks off on Saturday afternoon.
2. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley Against Ohio State’s Defense
In last week’s win over Michigan, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley produced two of the game’s biggest plays. On the second snap from scrimmage, Barkley gashed the Wolverines for a 69-yard touchdown run. He later added a 15-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and caught a 42-yard score from quarterback Trace McSorley in the fourth quarter. While Barkley delivered the big play on the second snap, he was largely held in check by Michigan’s defense. On his 14 other carries, Barkley managed only 39 yards. However, that stat underscores just how difficult it is to contain the junior running back. Even if a defense can limit his production through 10-15 carries, it’s a safe bet Barkley breaks a big play at some point.
Ohio State’s defense is the latest group looking to contain Barkley and put a dent into his Heisman campaign. The Buckeyes enter Saturday afternoon’s game ranked fourth in the Big Ten against the run, limiting opponents to just 109.6 yards per game. And if that number wasn’t impressive enough, here’s another stat to consider. If the matchup against Army (259 yards) is eliminated, Ohio State is holding opponents to just 2.5 yards per carry and 84.7 yards per game. It’s no secret the Buckeyes own one of college football’s top defensive fronts and a couple of the standouts in the trenches could be All-Americans by the end of 2017. Ends Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard have combined for 9.5 sacks, with Tracy Sprinkle, Dre’Mont Jones, Jashon Cornell, Davon Hamilton and Robert Landers clogging the interior. This line has it all for coordinator Greg Schiano – speed, athleticism, strength and the ability to stuff the run. Most importantly for Schiano, he has plenty of depth to rotate players and keep the front four fresh in the fourth quarter.
Penn State’s offensive line has struggled at times to open up running lanes and faces its toughest test of the season on Saturday night. This group will be under pressure to hold its blocks and give Barkley enough time to get up field and make a couple of big plays. In last year’s game, Barkley managed just 99 yards on 12 carries. Can Ohio State hold the junior to less than 100 yards once again? Or will the Nittany Lions’ offensive line deliver one of its best performances of the year, allowing Barkley to eclipse 100 yards and add a few more highlights to the Heisman Trophy campaign?
3. Penn Sate QB Trace McSorley
With the depth and talent in Ohio State’s front seven and focus on stopping Saquon Barkley, Penn State could lean a little more on quarterback Trace McSorley to win on Saturday afternoon.
Through seven contests, McSorley has passed for 1,879 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s also completing 66.8 percent of his throws and has tossed only five picks on 220 attempts. In addition to his success through the air, McSorley’s mobility (254 yards and seven touchdowns) is a valuable asset for an offensive line that has struggled at times to create holes for the ground game and protect on passing downs. Penn State’s quarterbacks have been sacked 18 times through seven games, including two in last week’s win over Michigan.
Why is McSorley and the passing attack a critical factor for Saturday afternoon’s game? Look back at Ohio State’s defensive performance in the opener against Indiana. The Buckeyes gave up 420 yards and three passing scores to the Hoosiers and struggled to defend Indiana’s bigger receivers on the outside. The Nittany Lions can utilize a similar approach with tempo and jump balls to their big receivers, including tight end Mike Gesicki and wide outs Juwan Johnson, Saeed Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton (all over 6-foot-1). Barkley is also a valuable outlet in the passing game, as he leads all Penn State players with 32 receptions.
Ohio State’s secondary has developed and improved since the opener against Indiana and the second week loss to Oklahoma. Denzel Ward is a lockdown option for coordinator Greg Schiano and anchors a defensive backfield that ranks 33rd nationally in pass efficiency. And over the last five games, only one opponent (Nebraska and largely with the game out of reach) threw for more than 100 yards. However, Penn State’s offense is the best test for the secondary since the Week 2 defeat to the Sooners. Are the Buckeyes really improved on the back end? Or can McSorley and coordinator Joe Moorhead spread the field and attack the outside successfully?
Considering college football has reached Week 9 of its 2017 season, it’s difficult to say we will learn a lot about both teams. However, it’s also fair to say Ohio State hasn’t been tested since the loss to Oklahoma, and the Buckeyes have the best collection of talent on both sides of the ball that Penn State has faced all year. Two key questions are likely to determine this matchup. How will Ohio State’s passing game perform? And on the other sideline, can Penn State’s offensive line and rushing attack generate production against the Buckeyes defensive front? In a tight game, turnovers or special teams could be the difference. This one is a tossup, but the edge goes to Ohio State at home, with Barrett and the passing game sealing the victory in the fourth quarter with a touchdown.