5 things Ohio State must improve on to win at Penn State
It went pretty well.
That seems to be the sentiment from most fans, as well as the players and coaches, after Ohio State’s season-opening drubbing of Nebraska.
Everything seemed to go as plan. Justin Fields looked better than advertised. The running game and offensive line looked a little rusty. The defense looked dreadful early, but by the end of the game resembled something that looked pretty good. Etc. Etc.
It’s been 9 months, but we finally were able to see more B1G football. And after four live quarters against an opponent, there are a few things that we know the Buckeyes need to improve on if they want to win in Happy Valley this weekend:
1. Protect Fields more and run him less.
Justin Fields was sacked 3 times against Nebraska, and while 2 of those could be attributed to holding the ball too long, the point has to be made: As Fields goes, so too go the Buckeyes. His jersey must be clean if the team is going to have the kind of season most expect, and his offensive line has been billed as one of the best in the country — so they must play like it (which includes blocking Penn State’s Shaka Toney). Junior lineman Wyatt Davis said as much last weekend, saying he was confident the squad’s performance would be better now that they’ve got some game experience under their belts.
In a similar vein, Fields cannot run the ball 15 times against other B1G teams like he did against the Cornhuskers. While it may be effective, it’s just too dangerous. The more your quarterback runs, the more likely he will end up injured. After the game, Fields said the runs weren’t necessarily designed, and that he was just taking what the defense gave him. But it’s fools’ gold. It’s a lot easier to hand off to one of the Buckeyes running backs. Which brings us to No. 2 on this list:
2. Establish the run with a consistent back.
In order to alleviate some of that rushing responsibility for Fields, Ohio State has to get one of its running backs going. At this point, we know what we’re going to get from Master Teague: 3 yards and a cloud of dust — which is in no way a bad thing. When you need a few yards, this is your dude. But he is not known as the dynamic, athletic talent who is going to make people miss and break off long runs. That is going to fall on the shoulders of Trey Sermon, who for a long while Saturday just did not look like he could get going. I expect more from Sermon going forward.
Then there’s the intriguing case of Steele Chambers, the redshirt freshman from Georgia. If Teague and Sermon can’t get things going, look for Chambers, who could provide some electricity if given the opportunity. If anyone can get the run game going, it will help with No. 3:
3. Avoid the slow start.
Against Nebraska, the Buckeyes fell behind the 8-ball early, and if a few plays went differently, the game could have been close for a lot longer (see: Penn State vs. Indiana). Momentum is a big thing, and taking it early against the Nittany Lions will help dictate the outcome. Establishing the run can definitely help do this, but so can forcing turnovers, and Penn State had 3 against Indiana last week — 2 interceptions thrown by quarterback Sean Clifford and a fumble by backup QB Will Levis — all in the first half. It gave Indiana energy and confidence that propelled the Hoosiers to an overtime victory.
Doing these things early could break the spirit of a team that’s already struggling after a tough Week 1 loss.
4. Stop the run. Duh.
It’s not rocket science, right? But it’s true.
The Buckeyes gave up 217 yards rushing against Nebraska. Of course, if you take away two long quarterback runs, the stats look a lot better. But I digress. The fact is, the defense is looking for the right mix of playmakers. In the first half against Nebraska, they were abysmal, but by the second half they’d found their groove and were very good.
Against Penn State, they have to keep that second-half form. The Nittany Lions gained 250 rushing yards at Indiana, including 119 on 17 attempts by the QB, Clifford (35 of which came on one long touchdown run). Teams are going to try to run on Ohio State, and they must be ready. Which leads us to this:
5. Beware the wounded Lion.
It’s no secret: This Penn State team is mad.
They’re mad at themselves for their turnovers, and for the 100 yards in penalties they racked up last week.
They’re mad at the officials, because they think Indiana’s 2-point conversion shouldn’t have counted.
And, let’s face it — they’re probably mad at their coach. James Franklin had the game won, up 21-20 with the ball and just 1:47 on the clock, and couldn’t close it out. Instead, Franklin had his team score and kick an extra point to go up 8, which left the door open for Indiana to come back, score and send the game into overtime. You know the rest. My guess is, they will come out motivated and ready on Halloween night.
This one’s going to be good.