Ohio State football: Why Penn State is a legitimate test for the Buckeyes
A few days ago, a certain columnist with our otherwise respectable site maintained that Penn State might not be the biggest of tests for this Ohio State football team. But as game week has gone on, it’s been time to re-evaluate that proclamation.
Yes, the Buckeyes are 15.5-point favorites over the Nittany Lions. Yes, the Buckeyes have won 5 in a row in the series — the longest winning streak for either side. And yes, these particular Nittany Lions looked more like kittens when Michigan pounded them by 24 points 2 weeks ago.
But rivalries mean more than numbers. And while Penn State isn’t exactly a vintage Joe Paterno squad headed straight for the CFP, this game is still a significant one for the Buckeyes. Here are a few reasons why:
When Ohio State plays in front of over 106,000 fans Saturday at Beaver Stadium, it’ll represent their only real trip into a hostile environment this season. Road foes Northwestern and Maryland could combine to fit their entire seating capacity inside Beaver Stadium. That leaves Michigan State, stumbling through a hopeless season in a stadium barely two-thirds the size of PSU’s.
A year ago, Ohio State’s 2 trips into genuinely imposing road venues resulted in a loss (Michigan) and an ugly 9-point win that was their lowest scoring output of the year (Nebraska). The road does matter, particularly when it becomes 11-on-106,000+. Should doubt of this exist, please review tape of Alabama drawing penalty flags like a mediocre JV team in Knoxville last weekend.
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2. Competitiveness in the series
Yes, the Nittany Lions have lost 5 straight to OSU since they last took down the Buckeyes in 2016 in Happy Valley. But the combined margin of Ohio State victory in those 5 games is just 35 points. Penn State has played closer than the point spread in 4 of those 5. The Nittany Lions’ system isn’t glamorous, but it’s designed to keep Penn State in games into the 4th quarter. Ohio State hasn’t played many competitive games lately, and might not be prepared for that sort of situation.
3. Penn State is no stranger to ranked teams
Even with Penn State’s program wobbling uncertainly under James Franklin, beating ranked foes is not an unusual thing for the Nittany Lions. In the last 6 seasons, Penn State has knocked off 9 ranked teams. Even in their 14 losses to ranked teams, Penn State usually keeps things tight. That run includes 6 losses by a field goal or less. While it’s not unheard of for Penn State to get blown out (see Michigan game), it’s also more unusual than recent experience would suggest.
4. Penn State’s DBs
Given Ohio State’s massive talent advantages over most teams and most position groups, Penn State’s secondary is one of very few units that could give OSU some trouble. Ji’Ayir Brown has been outstanding at safety, leading the Nittany Lions in tackles and interceptions. Corners Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King are 2 of the best in the nation. On their own, Porter and King have broken up 21 passes this season. Ohio State’s entire roster has 19 passes broken up. The Nittany Lions have allowed 6 touchdowns and snared 7 interceptions on the year, while holding foes to 6.0 yards per pass attempt. Particularly if Jaxon Smith-Njigba is somewhat limited, this could be an edge for PSU.
5. Red Zone danger
One of Ohio State’s keys this season has been efficiency in the red zone on offense and preventing touchdowns on defense. Well, Penn State can tell the same story. Ohio State is perfect in red zone scoring chances this year, with an 86% touchdown rate. Penn State is 2nd in the Big Ten, with only one empty red zone possession and an 80% touchdown rate.
Meanwhile, on defense, while 91% of Ohio State’s defensive red zone trips end in scores (but admittedly, only 45% in touchdowns), Penn State allows scores on just 76% of its red zone situations, and only 40% of those possessions have ended in touchdowns. For Ohio State, one of the many confounding parts of the Iowa game was needing to settle for field goals — Penn State has the personnel and history to replicate that part of last week’s game.
Ohio State has done a great job of avoiding expectations this year. The Buckeyes have rarely seemed uncomfortable in their own skin, posting easy win after easy win. But nobody wins a cake walk to the national championship. Pressure is coming, and it’ll be interesting to see how Ohio State reacts.
Yes, a game like, say, last week’s against Iowa presented situations like a defensive score or a turnover on the first play of a half. But Ohio State knew it could have played this game with their second team and probably cruised to a 2 or 3-score win. That’s not the case this weekend.
Ohio State vs. Penn State matters for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest is that it’s supposed to be a test for the Buckeyes. And as pleasant of a run as it’s been against the Rutgers and Iowas of the world, Penn State is one of the 2 or maybe 3 (Notre Dame?) signposts along the way.
Beat the little brothers of the Big Ten? National yawn. Play the way Ohio State has all season in this game? That moves the needle. And a year removed from a season of disappointment, Ohio State wants to move the needle.