Preview: No. 13 Ohio State vs. Penn State

By Patrick Maks on October 24, 2014 at 8:35 am
Ohio State obliterated Penn State last season. Can the Nittany Lions use home-field advantage for payback?

In 2013, then-undefeated Ohio State’s bout with Penn State was a chance for the Buckeyes to make a primetime statement on national television. They promptly choke slammed the Nittany Lions, 63-14, as if to flex their muscles before of an onlooking nation curious as to whether or not they were worthy of their lofty ranking.

A year later, Ohio State finds itself in a similar situation. Ever since an increasingly incomprehensible loss to Virginia Tech, head coach Urban Meyer and Co. have stormed back into the national picture after demolishing their last four opponents by an average score of 56-17. 

To be sure, a win against unranked and vulnerable Penn State (who's a 14-point underdog at home) in and of itself won't be that impressive, but it's critical for the Buckeyes — which swell with momentum after smashing Rutgers last weekend — to further their case for a spot in college football's inaugural playoff.  

Penn State Nittany Lions
4–2, 1–2 BIG TEN



And it's not like Beaver Stadium — one of the country's most intimidating venues — and its legendary White-Out will be easy conditions for a youthful Ohio State team to play in. 

"This will be a whole different demon we have to face," Meyer said. 

Thing is, the same could be said for a Penn State team that has yet to play a squad quite like the Buckeyes. 

"Probably the fastest, most athletic team we've played so far this year," head coach James Franklin said Tuesday.

If Ohio State can get past the Nittany Lions and the snake pit that is Happy Valley, expect an already huge contest with defending Big Ten champions Michigan State Nov. 8 in East Lansing to get that much bigger. 

Opponent Breakdown

Penn Started started its season 4-0 before dropping back-to-back games to Northwestern and Michigan. With a bye last week, it’s been a month since Franklin’s squad has had something to celebrate.

On offense, the Nittany Lions are led by quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who was swallowed up as a true freshman against Ohio State's defense in Columbus last year.

Still, the Buckeyes are careful not to take Hackenberg — a former five-star blue chip with a cannon for an arm — lightly. "They have an NFL quarterback, or a future NFL quarterback," Meyer said of the gunslinger Thursday on his radio call-in show. 

But the sophomore has been inconsistent this season: He's completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,637 yards and five touchdowns, but seven interceptions stick out like a sore thumb.

Go ahead and blame most of those struggles on an porous offensive line that, according to Franklin, has one scholarship tackle between the team's senior, junior and freshmen classes. It helps explain why the unit's given up 46 tackles-for-loss and why Hackenberg's been sacked 20 times. 

If the Nittany Lions can't slow down Ohio State's defensive line — which features the likes of Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington — they'll struggle to so much as sniff offensive success Saturday night. 

For Penn State to have a chance at pulling the upset, it will have to rely on a defense that ranks statistically in the top 10 in multiple categories. The Nittany Lions are only giving up 15 points and 283 yards a game, but whether or not they can put clamps on an Ohio State offense that's dropped at least 50 points and 500 yards in its last four games remains to be seen. 

Buckeye Breakdown

In an obliteration of Rutgers last weekend, it’s hard not to say Ohio State’s playing its best football of the season.

Ever since losing to the Hokies, the Buckeyes have exploded on offense and, as such, pillaged their way back into the playoff conversation. Redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett is playing out of his mind, the offensive line is much improved from the unit that gave up seven sacks to Virginia Tech, and the team's surrounding cast of skill players are making it extremely hard for opponents to try and make Ohio State one dimensional. 

After they were finished gutting the Scarlet Knights, the Buckeyes talked of being a team that's "never satisfied" and vowed to remain hungry despite a stretch where they're destroying overmatched teams by halftime.

On one hand, Ohio State looks a lot like the team it was projected to be at the start of the season. On the other, such domination breeds a certain confidence that can often mutate into cockiness. The Buckeyes say they won't fall into that trap. 

"Our guys know that we’re good and we’re confident, but we’re not so cocky that we’re going to overlook anybody or want to skip ahead to any games,” junior linebacker Joshua Perry said. “I think that the makeup that we have right now is really good for us to continue to be successful, but not overlook anything.”

It's why, on Monday during his weekly press conference, Meyer acted like Ohio State slipped past Rutgers in a messy squeaker. 

"We did not play great Saturday,” he said. "We expect to play great."

Of course, that's a lot of coach speak. But if Meyer truly thinks the Buckeyes can play better than that, expect Penn State to potentially have its hands full. 

How It’ll Go

For as intimidating as Beaver Stadium is, the Buckeyes haven’t lost there since 2005. Don’t count on that changing this weekend.

Because for as big as this game is to Penn State — and for as wild as the scene in Happy Valley might be Saturday night — home-field advantage doesn’t mean much when the gap between the on-field products is so wide.

Of course, the Nittany Lions have talent — that’s not the problem.

It’s numbers. There’s no depth.

Franklin’s a solid coach and heckuva recruiter who might be able to turn around a program that was castrated by the NCAA. But that kind of stuff takes time, and the sanctions imposed against his program — namely, scholarship reductions — are having a very real effect on this trajectory of this season. It’s more than what you see Saturday; it’s something Franklin and his staff have to deal with every single day. It has a ripple effect. The margin for error or injury is nonexistent.

Penn State can — and probably will — play with as much heart and drive and will and want Saturday, but it’s a ultimately a numbers game. How do you justify losses to Northwestern and arguably one of the worst Michigan teams of all time?

And against Ohio State — a rolling team that must scorch the earth for a chance at making the playoffs come December — the Nittany Lions are bringing a spork to a knife fight. The Buckeyes roll.


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