Ohio State: 5 ways Penn State could top the Buckeyes
Read with trepidation, Buckeye Nation. Sure, Ohio State is a 17.5-point favorite on Saturday against Penn State. Sure, this humble columnist himself wrote yesterday that this game has lost much of the luster that was there a month ago — you know, back when Penn State was actually believed to be a top-rate football team.
But of course, there is no such thing as a sure thing. It would take a surprise for Penn State to hang with the Buckeyes, much less beat them. But here are 5 ways that surprise could materialize.
1) Penn State discovers a 200-yard rushing attack
Back when OSU was defensively morbid to open the season, the Buckeyes allowed 200+ rushing yards in each of their first 2 games — a too-close-for-comfort win over Minnesota and the loss to Oregon. Granted, since that time, Ohio State has only allowed 100 rushing yards once — 111 by Rutgers, mostly late.
And as for Penn State, the Nittany Lions didn’t total 200 rushing yards between their last 2 games. But they have had a pair of 200-yard rushing games on the season — against Ball State and Indiana. Penn State QB Sean Clifford had big rushing games in both of those matchups — 66 rushing yards against Ball State and 58 against Indiana. So if Clifford starts breaking big runs, watch out.
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2) For that matter, Penn State discovers any means of scoring
Penn State is not an elite offensive team. They’ve topped 28 points twice this year — against Ball State and Villanova. Penn State can’t expect a 16-10 win like they managed over Wisconsin. Even a 28-20 victory like the one over Auburn seems incredibly unlikely.
The last time a team beat Ohio State without scoring more points than that was Penn State’s 24-21 win at Happy Valley in 2016. But this OSU team averages about 10 points per game more than that one did. Clifford could really use the game of his life — in the air as well as on the ground. He’s topped 300 yards this year only in the Villanova game, but 236 yards were enough for Oregon in its win over the Buckeyes. Still, Oregon needed 35 points, and Penn State really needs to reach that level to have a shot.
3) Penn State’s secondary overwhelms CJ Stroud
There’s been absolutely no sign of struggle in CJ Stroud’s season. He hasn’t even thrown an interception since Sept. 18. He has yet to complete less than 59% of his passes in any game, and only once — against Tulsa — has he failed to throw for 3 or more touchdowns.
But Penn State’s secondary has been nasty. The Nittany Lions have held opposing passers to the lowest QB rating in the B1G. Penn State has held opponents under 56% passing, with just 5.2 yards per attempt, 4 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The other defenses Stroud has faced in conference? That would be the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th-ranked pass efficiency defenses in the league. So this will be substantially different.
4) Penn State shuts down the big play and OSU stops itself
There’s no big mystery about the fact that much of the chess match of modern college football is making an offense systematically grind down the field vs. giving up big plays. There’s also no secret that OSU is great at the big play.
The Buckeyes have 53 20+ yard plays and 24 30+ yard plays this season. That ranks 1st and 2nd respectively in the conference. Meanwhile, Penn State has allowed just 7 30+ yard plays on the season– which ties for the fewest in the league. If Penn State can keep OSU’s bevy of receivers playing underneath, the Lions might take advantage of penalties or minor mistakes to hang in the game. And this is a team that has played 4 one-score games of the 7 so far this season.
5) Special teams chaos
Ohio State’s special teams have been superb all season, and there’s no reason to single them out here. Except that in any given week, the inexplicable can happen.
Penn State is first in the Big Ten in punting, and has only allowed 2 kickoff returns to occur all season. Ohio State is still relying on a freshman punter, and probably won’t get to use weapon Emeka Egbuka in the return game. Stuck in a competitive game for the first time in a month and a half, OSU should be wary of a bad snap, a muffed punt, and any of the other myriad small details that can become big in a hurry.