Justin Fields' running, Penn State's pass defense among key areas in Ohio State's showdown with Nittany Lions
It’s the game of the year in the Big Ten. It will not only determine who represents the East Division in the Big Ten title game in a few weeks, but it could determine the Big Ten’s representative in the College Football Playoff.
Yeah, No. 8 Penn State at No. 2 Ohio State (noon, FOX) looks like it’s going to be great, yet again. This is the third straight meeting between the teams in which both are ranked in the top 10. Will it be the fourth straight in which the game is decided by three points or less? Vegas doesn’t think so, as Ohio State was favored by 18.5, as of Friday morning.
Here are three areas to watch:
1. How much will Justin Fields run?
The Ohio State quarterback has been nothing short of terrific in his first season as a starting quarterback. He has been an elite passer, with 31 passing touchdowns compared with just one interception. In College Football Reference’s database, which goes back to 2000, Fields is the only person to accomplish that feat in a single season. It’s better than Kellen Moore in 2009 (39-3 TD-INT ratio), Tua Tagovailoa in 2019 (33-3) and Bryce Petty in 2013 (32-3).
Fields’ season is amazing in itself, and it should most definitely land him in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Pro Football Focus recently ranked him as the No. 2 quarterback behind only LSU’s Joe Burrow (the likely Heisman winner, barring a late push from Fields).
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But Fields’ season is even more spectacular when you consider that Fields was billed as a dual-threat quarterback. He has been a very good runner, too, with 377 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. But there’s usually a stigma that comes with that label — often, it’s a roundabout way of saying the quarterback is a good runner and not quite as good of a passer. That hasn’t applied to Fields at all, as he is averaging 9.4 yards per attempt (tied for eighth in the country).
Fields spent his freshman season at Georgia as a running quarterback — a change of pace to starter (and pocket passer) Jake Fromm. Fields finished 2018 with 42 rushing attempts and just 39 passing attempts. That obviously has flipped this year, with Fields attempting 84 rushes and 230 passes.
So, my question for Saturday (and the rest of the season) is this: Will Fields show off more of that running ability? Fields started the season with 12 rushing attempts against Florida Atlantic, but he’s only exceeded that number once, when he rushed 13 times against Wisconsin (in bad weather conditions). The Buckeyes have been so much better than everyone on their schedule thus far that they haven’t needed Fields to run too much — and thus increase his chance for injury. In games that presumably will be closer (Ohio State could close the season with five top-15 teams, if it makes the national title game), will the No. 2 prospect from the Class of 2018 rely more on his legs?
2. Can Penn State’s secondary hold up?
The argument against using Fields more in the running game on Saturday is that Penn State has had a leaky pass defense at various points this season — and most glaringly the last two weeks. The Nittany Lions allowed Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan to throw for 339 yards and three touchdowns on just 20 pass attempts, of which there have only been eight such games since 2000.
Then last week, Peyton Ramsey (who began this season as Indiana’s backup) shredded Penn State for 371 passing yards while his top receiver missed most of the game with a concussion. That’s obviously not a good sign for Penn State.
While Penn State’s defense has been very good this season, ranking 7th nationally in points allowed per game (13.5) and 17th in yards allowed per game (316.2), it has a weakness, and that’s through the air. The Nittany Lions allow 6.9 yards per pass attempt, which is tied for 37th nationally.
Ohio State has a balanced offense and is very comfortable playing through star running back J.K. Dobbins (who ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards per game at 128.9), but it may want to attack the Nittany Lions through the air.
3. Will Penn State contain Chase Young?
Young, the star defensive end and top NFL prospect, is expected to return after a two-game suspension for violating NCAA rules. He has to be chomping at the bit to get back out there, and Penn State will no doubt spend an endless amount of time game-planning for him.
Even though Young has missed the last two games, he is still second in the country with 13.5 sacks, just a half sack behind Oregon State’s Hamilcar Rashed Jr. Young very well may lead the country once again after this game, and a big-time performance could once again capture Heisman Trophy voters the way he did against Wisconsin. That day, Young was a one-man wrecking crew, registering four sacks and five tackles for loss.
Penn State has allowed 19 sacks this season, which is tied for fifth best in the Big Ten. But the Nittany Lions have struggled protecting Sean Clifford in passing downs, ranking just 105th in the country in sack rate in such situations at 10.8 percent. On the other hand, Penn State is allowing a sack on just 2 percent of standard downs (10th in the country).
It will be fascinating to see how Young performs in his return to the field — and how Penn State tries to slow him down.