Ohio State cruised to five blowout victories against overmatched opponents before its open week, but the Buckeyes are going to be in for a serious challenge next weekend.
Penn State made that much clear last night, when the No. 2-ranked Nittany Lions had a blowout victory of their own, 42-13, in what was expected to be a more competitive game against Michigan.
No Ohio State game on Saturday meant an opportunity to watch Penn State’s game against the Wolverines and get a better idea of what is coming to Columbus next weekend.
Some challenges were already clear before Saturday night, like that of defending Penn State running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley, so that doesn’t qualify as a new takeaway even though Barkley had 108 rushing yards, 53 receiving yards and three total touchdowns on Saturday.
It’s also become clear that Jim Harbaugh’s team has some major flaws, which could play into Ohio State’s benefit at the end of the regular season, but we’ll focus on the team that’s next on the Buckeyes' schedule for now.
The following five points take a look at what helped lead Penn State to its dominant win on Saturday and what Ohio State will need to be ready for next Saturday.
Trace McSorley will take chances
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley is not afraid to take shots in the downfield passing game.
That much was clear on Saturday, when McSorley completed six passes of longer than 20 yards on a night that he threw for 282 total passing yards.
While McSorley’s downfield throws aren’t always delivered with precise accuracy, he trusts his pass-catchers to make plays and has a knack for putting the ball in places where his playmakers can adjust to the ball and capitalize.
McSorley’s willingness to take chances leads to mistakes at times – he threw one interception on Saturday night, and should have had another pass picked off in his own end zone – so Ohio State needs to capitalize on takeaway opportunities if he gives them. Most importantly, though, the Buckeyes need to be prepared for McSorley to take chances against them, because they will pay the price of giving up big plays if they are not.
DaeSean Hamilton could test Buckeye defensive backs
DaeSean Hamilton looked the part of being Penn State’s No. 1 wide receiver on Saturday night, catching six passes for 115 yards, including three of the aforementioned six 20-plus-yards receptions.
Utilized as both an outside receiver and in the slot, Hamilton showed his ability to adjust and make plays on deep balls down the field but also to get separation on short routes and turn them into strong gains.
Ohio State’s defensive backs have struggled against talented quarterback-receiver combinations this year. The Buckeyes' secondary will need to step up its game to avoid being picked apart by Hamilton, who has now gone over 100 yards in two of Penn State’s last three games.
Joe Moorhead should have a creative game plan
It’s not very often that Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown gets out-coached, but that’s exactly what happened on Saturday night, as Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead combined well-designed plays with well-timed play calling to put up 506 yards on the Wolverines.
Penn State unveiled a number of new wrinkles on Saturday night, including a Wildcat package with Barkley, which worked to perfection on the Nittany Lions’ second play of the game, when Barkley took a direct snap 69 yards to the house for a touchdown.
Moorhead won’t have as much time to come up with new wrinkles for the Ohio State game, as the Nittany Lions will only have one week to prepare for this week’s game instead of the two weeks they had for Michigan, but Penn State coach James Franklin suggested after Saturday night’s game that Moorhead still has some other tricks up his sleeve.
Franklin says Moorhead had an unseen play he wanted to run, but was vetoed by Franklin. Folks we have a secret play on our hands.— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) October 22, 2017
Jason Cabinda is a player to watch
Penn State middle linebacker Jason Cabinda was all over the field for the Nittany Lions on Saturday night, recording a team-high 13 total tackles with a sack and a forced fumble.
Regardless of whether Michigan was throwing the ball or running the ball in Saturday’s game, No. 40 in blue seemed to be involved in the play. A senior who is regarded as one of the Nittany Lions’ leaders, Cabinda was the best player on Penn State’s defense on a night that the Nittany Lions held Michigan to two scores and 269 yards.
Cabinda doesn’t get as much recognition as some of the Big Ten’s other top linebackers, but making plays with high frequency is nothing new for him. He did it in Penn State’s win over Ohio State last year, also recording 13 total tackles in that game.
While Ohio State’s offense will be the best offense that Penn State has faced all year, Cabinda is a player who has proven his ability to make plays in big games, and will be a threat to do so against the Buckeyes once again.
Blake Gillikin can help control field-position battle
Although Penn State didn’t need to punt often on Saturday night, Nittany Lions punter Blake Gillikin made one play that was quietly significant in his team ultimately controlling the game.
After a hot start by the Nittany Lions gave the home team a 14-0 lead, Michigan started to claw its way back into the game, intercepting a McSorley pass on Penn State’s next possession and scoring a touchdown on its subsequent series. The Wolverines shut Penn State down deep in its own territory on its next possession, opening the door for Michigan to get favorable field position and potentially tie the game. Gillikin helped quell that, however, by hitting a 56-yard punt out of the Nittany Lions’ own end zone.
Upon starting the subsequent series from their own 36, Michigan failed to get a first down and was forced to punt the ball back to the Nittany Lions.
That punt, one of only two punts for the sophomore in Saturday’s game, was Gillikin’s eighth punt of 50-plus yards in seven games this season. Gillikin has also downed 16 of his 28 punts this season downed inside the 20-yard line. While Penn State’s offense is explosive and its defense has dominated its first seven opponents, Gillikin adds value on special teams that makes the Nittany Lions even tougher to beat.