Penn State football: The 5 biggest concerns facing the Nittany Lions against Ohio State
An opening loss to Indiana in heart-breaking fashion is probably not how Penn State wanted to enter the most important game of its season, but nonetheless that’s where the Nittany Lions have arrived.
Nothing quite looked smooth against the Hoosiers, and the bar has only been raised with reigning Big Ten champion Ohio State set to visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday night. The Buckeyes seem to have it all, as Ryan Day continues to out-recruit every other school in the conference and seems to have his squad poised for a Playoff run.
There’s plenty of reason for Penn State to be concerned with how Halloween night will unfold, but these are the 5 biggest challenges:
Let’s start with the obvious one. The type of season Fields had in 2019 — producing 51 touchdowns and over 3,700 yards of offense — wins a Heisman most years. The former Penn State commit picked up right where he left off by having a nearly flawless game against Nebraska in Week 1, going 20-for-21 for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air, while also contributing 54 yards and another touchdown on the ground.
.@justnfields threw a DART 🎯
— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) October 24, 2020
The box score will tell you that Penn State’s defense did a great job of limiting Michael Penix Jr. to 19-of-36 passing for 170 yards, but the Nittany Lions secondary was greatly aided by his inaccuracy. Several times Penix missed wide-open receivers that Fields, with a near 70% connection rate, is going to hit.
Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle are two of the best at their position in the Big Ten, but the weapons Fields will be working with run much deeper, not to mention he’ll be protected behind the best offensive line in the country.
Highest-graded power 5 OLs in Wk 8:
1. Ohio State – 81.4
2. Alabama – 78.6
3. NC State – 78.5
4. Kentucky – 77.6 pic.twitter.com/qNzirnZ5gu
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 26, 2020
As if Micah Parson’s decision to opt out wasn’t already creating enough of a challenge, now DC Brent Pry must further shuffle his linebackers rotation.
Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa all looked solid and sharp against Indiana as the Nittany Lions recast the position group members in the absence of probable first-round NFL pick Parson.
Luketa, however, was ejected for targeting in the second half after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Miles Marshall and will be forced to sit out of the first half against the Buckeyes.
Redshirt freshman Lance Dixon will be asked to start for the first time in just his 4th career game, on one of the nation’s biggest stages. With Dixon, sophomore Smith and redshirt-junior Brooks, Penn State will have LBs with a combined 2 career starts tasked with slowing down Fields and Co. for the first 30 minutes.
Fields presents a unique challenge with his ability to pull down the ball and run. The inexperienced trio will need to remain disciplined and at least take away one of the Ohio State QB’s threats.
Wilson is half of Ohio State’s 2-headed receiver attack. The other half is Chris Olave, who had 6 catches for 104 yards against the Cornhuskers, only bettered by Wilson’s 7 receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown.
— Buckeye Videos+ (@BuckeyeVideos) October 19, 2020
Freshman Joey Porter Jr. and senior Tariq Castro-Fields did a fine job blanketing Hoosiers receivers, but Penn State’s depth in the secondary will be tested as the Buckeyes also trot out talented freshmen Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming, a 5-star Penn State recruiting target who spurned his home state to join the Buckeyes.
Equally concerning from Wilson is his ability to field punts. Penn State’s special teams have already allowed a 21-yard punt return, and Wilson returned one 22 yards against Nebraska.
It’s the elephant in the room, an empty Beaver Stadium. What is typically the loudest, most hostile environment in the nation when Happy Valley hosts a White Out, will instead be a quiet, antiseptic stadium filled with cardboard cutouts and a few hundred family members.
Even Urban Meyer said just a few weeks ago that White Outs provide at least a 10-point advantage for the home team.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 28, 2020
This was supposed to be Penn State’s year, finally getting the Buckeyes at home with comparable roster talent. Instead the Nittany Lions have to take on Ohio State without their best defender and their starting running back, and beat the Buckeyes without the help of 110,000 fans for the first time since 2011.
Penn State fans may hate to admit it, but the Buckeyes have a leg up in the coaching department. Day is 17-1 at Ohio State spanning 3 seasons. He’s won a Big Ten title, produced 2 Heisman finalists, won a Rose Bowl and led his team to the College Football Playoff.
Most important, though, is his ability to stay calm and make the right call under pressure, something James Franklin still struggles with in Year 7 at Penn State. Day’s teams consistently produce in the biggest games, whereas Franklin has developed a habit of making puzzling decisions. Think 4th-and-5 against the Buckeyes or pulling Trace McSorley out of a potential game-winning drive against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.