5 reasons Penn State will end Ohio State's run of dominance
Penn State has been close to Ohio State. Games decided by 1 point in 2 of the last 3 meetings would tell you as much. A 4th-and-5 here, a 13-of-13 J.T. Barrett there, the Nittany Lions have a way of hanging around and losing in the final moments.
“I didn’t come here to hang with Ohio State. I came here to beat Ohio State.”
Those were Sean Clifford’s words on Wednesday morning, a little more than 3 days removed from Penn State’s excruciating loss to Indiana that removed any room for error if the Nittany Lions want to make their first College Football Playoff.
Saturday’s game against No. 3 Ohio State is no longer the top-10 matchup college football fans had hoped for, but it’s still Penn State’s best chance to hop right back on track to winning the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes in no way looked infallible in their 52-17 win over Nebraska, and the Nittany Lions won almost every statistical metric in their game against the Hoosiers.
There’s plenty of reason to still have faith that James Franklin’s team is capable of pulling the upset, even without the help of 110,000 fans. Here are the 5 reasons why Penn State will end Ohio State’s run of dominance:
1. Sean Clifford gives PSU a running start
Clifford actually had a pretty decent day against Indiana, making amends for his 2 early interceptions that led to 10 Hoosier points. While he finished the day with 238 passing yards and 3 touchdowns, including a 60-yard pass to Jahan Dotson, Clifford was most dangerous when he escaped the pocket and took off running.
The Penn State QB led the team in rushing with 119 yards on 17 carries and had a team-long rush of 35 yards that he took to the house. Franklin delivered the news earlier this week that Penn State will be without Noah Cain for the remainder of the season. That, compounded with the uncertain timeline of Journey Brown, who could also be out for the year, leaves the Nittany Lions down to sophomore Devyn Ford backed up by freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes.
Sean Clifford uses his legs to put Penn State within three pic.twitter.com/3NxbZVHXcg
— The Daily Collegian (@DailyCollegian) October 24, 2020
With all the uncertainty in the running back department, Clifford’s role as a runner is magnified, and that may actually play in Penn State’s favor.
The Buckeyes have shown since the end of last season that they struggle against mobile QBs. Trevor Lawrence gashed the Buckeyes for 107 rushing yards in last season’s Fiesta Bowl, and Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez led the Cornhuskers in rushing with 85 yards and a touchdown in Week 1.
The Cornhuskers had success using 2 QBs, pairing Martinez with Luke McCaffrey, who finished with 80 yards rushing. This was not unlike Penn State last year against Ohio State, when the Nittany Lions rode Will Levis to the tune of 18 carries, 34 yards and a touchdown while Clifford battled injuries.
Penn State used Levis twice against Indiana to no avail (delay of game and a fumble) but could use him even more on Saturday, the same way Nebraska used McCaffrey.
2. Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh can wreak havoc
Had Penn State hung on to beat the Hoosiers, one potential headline would have been how Toney and Oweh just continually bulldozed their way through the Indiana offensive line.
Shaka Toney takes some of the tightest corners in college football pic.twitter.com/pcT9xdhG7G
— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) October 24, 2020
Jayson Oweh (9) & Shaka Toney (6) had 15 QB pressures between them in @PennStateFball OT loss to Indiana
Oweh will be a riser in #2021NFLDraft throughout this season… Only 1 start coming into 2020
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) October 25, 2020
Among Toney’s 7 tackles were 2 sacks, a QB hit and 2 QB hurries, while Oweh added 2 tackles in his first collegiate start. Per PFF College, Oweh was the highest-graded Big Ten defender. Toney and Oweh were also Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation in pass-rush win percentage.
This is all obviously good news for slowing down an Ohio State rushing attack that still doesn’t have a defined starter at running back and making Justin Fields a little more uncomfortable than he was in his near-flawless 21-of-22 performance against the Cornhuskers.
While Fields is an extremely dangerous, dual-threat QB, he does have a tendency to scramble around and hold the ball too long. Nebraska sacked the QB 3 times.
Penn State’s defensive line as a whole played well against Indiana, holding Stevie Scott to just 2.9 yards per carry. No Ohio State running back finished with anything better than 48 yards, so it could be another long day for a unit needing to replace J.K. Dobbins.
3. If Olave is out or limited, OU will be short on options at WR
Not to celebrate the injury of a player, but Chris Olave, arguably the Buckeyes’ best wideout, is banged up with a head injury and his status for Saturday remains uncertain.
Olave finished the Nebraska game as the team’s second-leading receiver with 6 catches for 104 yards, but if he doesn’t play against the Nittany Lions or his playing time is reduced, that leaves Ohio State with just one established receiver with any experience in Garrett Wilson.
Wilson led the team with 7 catches, 129 yards and a touchdown, and is a dangerous playmaker, but beyond him, the Buckeyes will have to turn to a pair of freshmen in Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming. Both are blue-chip talents, but they only have 3 catches 18 yards combined so far in college. Granted, Smith-Njigba caught maybe the best touchdown of the week:
— Receiver School (@ReceiverSchool) October 24, 2020
Penn State’s secondary played well for 55 minutes against Indiana with established starters Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade leading the way, but perhaps the biggest surprise for the defense was how well freshman Joey Porter Jr. played. Porter had a sack, a pass breakup and 5 tackles, so the Nittany Lions may actually be well-positioned to cover Ohio State’s receivers.
4. Ohio State’s front seven is in flux
For what feels like the first time in forever, there isn’t a top pick in the next NFL Draft lurking somewhere on Ohio State’s defensive line. Just like any positional group at Ohio State, it’s still composed of a bunch of 4 and 5-star recruits, but the Buckeyes are thin at defensive tackle this year, rotating just 3 players for a majority of the game against Nebraska with Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai and Antwuan Jackson.
Garrett is still improving his fitness following an offseason gunshot to the face and the status of Taront Vincent also remains unknown as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Ohio State linebackers Pete Werner and Baron Browning are also still working through some early-season issues after switching roles this offseason.
Nebraska averaged almost 6 yards a carry against the Buckeyes, which would be huge for Penn State if it was in any way able to replicate that success early on, find a lead running back, win the time of possession and keep Fields off the field as much as possible.
The Buckeyes are rolling into Happy Valley coming off an easy win, after an entire offseason of hearing how they are head and shoulders above any other team in the Big Ten.
Penn State just had one of the worst losses of the Franklin era, and did so in a fashion where many of the players probably felt a wrong call decided the game. The Nittany Lions will be motivated to not let the season start with consecutive losses and have heard all week how their little mistakes and 10 penalties were fatal.
This is also Ohio State’s first road game of the year. Traveling is a completely different process with COVID-19 protocols than it has been in seasons past, so the Buckeyes could be a little out of their element and routine. It could also be a little awkward for Fleming, who as mentioned earlier is going to be asked to have the biggest game of his career, to play in the stadium of the program in his own backyard that he spurned in favor of Columbus.
No, the Buckeyes don’t have to worry about the atmosphere of a White Out, but the Nittany Lions intend to rebound and make the sounds of their victory bell after the game equally as deafening.