How Penn State can take advantage of a potential Ohio State weakness
I don’t think Ohio State is unstoppable.
How’s that for a double negative to kick things off?
That’s not my way of discrediting what the Buckeyes have done. We’re talking about the first 10-0 B1G East team since the switch to the 9-game conference schedule. Justin Fields is firmly in the Heisman Trophy conversation, Chase Young is arguably the best player in college football and Ryan Day looks every bit like the Lincoln Riley mold Ohio State hoped he’d be.
One would think Ohio State is unstoppable by the fact that its average margin of victory against Power 5 teams is a whopping 40 points (that’s a full touchdown better than next-best Clemson). A team who has yet to play in a game decided by less than 24 points has the makings of a national champion.
But unstoppable? I’m skeptical of that. In fact, I actually think many are overlooking the exact way in which Penn State can stop Ohio State. Particularly the Ohio State offense, which is ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring.
Penn State’s ability to generate pressure is unlike anything Fields or the Buckeyes have seen.
The athletes that the Lions have in the front 7 to pursue Fields creates a rather unprecedented matchup. As good as Michigan State and Wisconsin are on the defensive side, they don’t have the speed that Penn State does. I realize that’s mostly an (gasp) eye-test thing, but the numbers are on my side, too.
Every year, 247sports puts together a composite talent list. It shows how many 5-star, 4-star and 3-star recruits make up each team. Take Ohio State’s entire slate of B1G opponents up to this point. That’s Rutgers, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana and Nebraska. Combine the 4- and 5-star recruits of those teams and it adds up to 68. Penn State’s number is 50. Take out Nebraska — the highest ranked team in terms of talent so far on OSU’s schedule — and the Lions have more 4- and 5-star players than those other 6 teams (Rutgers, Northwestern, Wisconsin, MSU, Maryland and Indiana) combined.
What am I getting at? Aren’t recruiting rankings overrated?
To an extent, yes. But in this case, I can’t help but wonder how Fields is going to run the offense against the first team he’s faced that’s remotely close to Ohio State’s level of talent.
He’s not making decisions against defenders who are maximizing every ounce of their 3-star abilities. For the first time, Fields’ decision process will be tested against former blue chip recruits like Micah Parsons and Brandon Smith, who will be the first 5-star defensive players that Fields and Co. face this year. And Penn State has a pair of proven, prolific former 4-star recruits rushing off the edge in Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos.
It’ll be even tougher than MSU and Wisconsin, who actually fared somewhat well against Fields:
With all due respect to MSU and Wisconsin, both of whom have great team defenses with NFL-ready players, but Penn State is just built differently.
Again, that’s not just an eye test thing. The numbers support that, too.
Penn State averages more tackles for loss per game (7.6) than any of OSU’s conference opponents so far, and they rank No. 11 in FBS in sacks per game (3.3). They take their chances with extra guys in the box to stop the run — Georgia is the only Power 5 team better in that department — and they force offenses to beat them through the air. But while defending the pass is certainly Penn State’s defensive weakness, the Lions still rank No. 30 in passing efficiency defense and they only allowed 8 passing touchdowns in 10 games this year (they have just as many interceptions).
I know what you might be thinking — didn’t I just watch Tanner Morgan light up Penn State? Why wouldn’t Fields be able to do the same? Good question. I’m glad you asked. I’d argue someone with double the starts has an advantage in terms of handling an elite defense, which he did with incredible success.
Go back and watch that game. Morgan got rid of the ball quickly. He was decisive. He read Penn State’s blitzes extremely well and knew the areas that he could attack. He didn’t try to do too much.
I question if Fields will be able to do that for 60 minutes. As I always say, my biggest knock on him his that I think he holds onto the ball too long. He’ll stare down a blitzing edge rusher because he knows he can scramble his way out of it. He’s supremely talented that way, but we’ve yet to see how that translates against a defense like Penn State. Granted, Fields only threw 1 interception all year and when you have an offensive line as good as Ohio State’s, you can trust that you’re going to get a little extra time.
But I expect Penn State to bring a lot of pressure at Fields to speed up his process. Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry is too smart to think that sitting back in coverage and letting Fields go through his progressions will work in the Lions’ favor. Obviously, that’ll be easier said than done.
Maybe, just maybe, Penn State’s combination of talent and desperation make this game more interesting than the -18 line suggests. Parsons said that this is the B1G Championship for Penn State. It’s not just another game. And who knows if there’s a little extra motivation for someone like Parsons and Co. to shut down Fields, the former Penn State commit.
Let’s also not forget that OSU had the last laugh with Penn State each of the last 3 years. The nail-biters after blown Penn State leads the last 2 years speak for themselves, and James Franklin’s B1G Championship squad was left outside of the Playoff while the OSU team he beat made the field back in 2016.
I don’t know if any of that will be a factor on Saturday. What I do know is that Penn State can present something new for Fields. It’s another critical test for the young signal-caller.
How he handles it could determine Ohio State’s season.