It's almost here.
Thirsty for a win against an elite opponent and an inside track to a College Football Playoff spot, No. 6 Ohio State has a chance to exact some revenge as it welcomes No. 2 Penn State to Ohio Stadium for a Saturday afternoon clash of titans.
Unbeaten Penn State brings Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley and a high-powered attack fresh off a thrashing of Michigan while the Buckeyes enjoyed an open week.
Will the Silver Bullets contain Barkley? Can Ohio State's offensive line give J.T. Barrett time to operate? Could J.K. Dobbins steal the show?
Well, Penn State completing dominated what was presumably a stout Michigan defense. Of course, Saquon Barkley went off but he wasn’t alone as Penn State rushed for 224 yards on 6.4 per carry with five touchdowns. Can Ohio State slow the PSU rushing attack? Why or why not?
Joshua: I think Ohio State can. We have great defensive minds in charge of putting a game plan in place. We also have one of the best defensive lines in America, and some great linebackers playing behind them. It surely will not be an easy task, but with a high game at home, coming off of a bye, I think the defense is up for that challenge. Be on the look out for single safety middle (man and 3 deep) coverages so the Bucks can load the box for the run.
DJ: Ohio State can and will stop the Penn State rushing attack for two reasons.
- The Buckeye defensive line is good.
- The Nittany Lion offensive line is bad.
Saquon Barkley, while a once-in-a-decade athlete, can’t block for himself. He scares me more as a receiver and kick returner in this game.
Dan: I think Ohio State will slow the Penn State rushing attack for the most part. No one has had much sustained success running against the Buckeyes this year. They've only allowed 2.93 rushing yards per rushing attempt, 10th-best among all FBS teams. The only team they've allowed to rush for more than 200 yards is Army, which ran the ball 58 times and still scored only seven points. The only other team that has rushed for more than three yards per carry against Ohio State is UNLV, and nearly all of UNLV's damage came on big plays against Ohio State's backups. I think Ohio State's stout defensive front will control the line of scrimmage, which will stop Barkley from consistently running for significant chunks of yardage. That said, I do think Barkley will break off a couple of long runs, and that could be enough to make the difference in the game.
Kevin: Here’s a #take to start us off – maybe Michigan’s defense isn’t great. I think everyone just gave it the benefit of the doubt because the Wolverines have been winning games despite looking completely anemic offensively. But like, who exactly have they shut down this year? Purdue? Florida?
I’m not about to crown Penn State because it mauled Michigan. I think Ohio State is a much better team than the Wolverines, even defensively. I do think the Buckeyes can and will take away the ground game and force McSorley to beat them through the air.
Through the air, Trace McSorley wasn’t incredible but did put up 282 yards with a touchdown and pick last weekend. I worry more about the receiving weapons at his disposal. Should OSU fans be concerned about tight end Mike Gesicki and slot guys like DaeSean Hamilton getting into favorable matchups against Ohio State’s linebackers and safeties? Said differently, is there a chance PSU has a big night in the middle of the field as Oklahoma did due to linebackers biting hard on play fakes and less-than-stellar coverage from the back two?
Kevin: Short answer: Yes. That’s possible, but I don’t necessarily expect that to happen.
Like Oklahoma, Penn State plays a very RPO-heavy offense. Unlike Oklahoma, the Nittany Lions’ most dangerous weapon is the running back, not the quarterback.
Given that, I expect Ohio State to try to take away the run from Saquon Barkley on those plays, filling the run gaps with the linebackers, and force Trace McSorely to beat a zone coverage downfield through the air. McSorely could do that, or he could be overwhelmed by a pass rush. We’ll see.
Joshua: I think that the defense will lean on the Oklahoma film to see what types of schemes and matchups gave them fits. Play-action was absolutely an area where they struggled, which happens when you have such aggressive linebackers. Don't be surprised to see one of our corners potentially shadow Hamilton in man coverage, and expect lots of jams on the line of scrimmage against Gesicki. These are two adjustments I could easily see.
Dan: I think there is a definite chance Penn State has a big night in the middle of the field, but I thought that might have more to do with Barkley than anyone else. Oklahoma's leading receiver against the Buckeyes was Dimitri Flowers, a fullback, who had seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. Barkley is certainly a more dynamic athlete than Flowers, so Ohio State's linebackers and safeties need to do a much better job of staying in position and not allowing receivers to leak out of the backfield in this game. If they are unable to do that, Barkley might very well do more damage in the passing game than he does in the running game. Of course, the Buckeyes can't focus too much of their attention on Barkley, because Gesicki and Hamilton – among other Penn State pass-catchers – are tough matchups too. As Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker said this week, it will be crucial for every Buckeye linebacker and defensive back to do their individual jobs, because Penn State has a quarterback who is more than capable to take advantage of missed assignments.
DJ: Jordan Fuller, who you might not know is the nephew of 90’s icon Sinbad, has broken out in the past five weeks and helped solidify the back end of the defense—though Damon Webb will still have to guard somebody.
McSorley, Hamilton, and Gesicki will make their plays. Just a matter of not letting them run wild like Michigan did. Hopefully the Oklahoma experience was a big enough lesson for the linebacking corps, which has also turned it around since the arrival of Tuf Borland in the middle. If Chris Worley doesn’t start, we definitely have a Jerome Baker/Dante Booker situation on our hands.
On the outside, Nittany Lion wide receiver Juwan Johnson is a handful as is Hamilton when he’s not in the slot. I think we all feel good about Denzel Ward’s ability to hold up but what about Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield and maybe Jeffrey Okudah? Should Buckeye fans be afraid of those matchups or will the non-Ward cover guys step up?
DJ: Again, it’s not like Ohio State will shut these guys out. The offense is legit, and they’re going to make plays. The key as a fan will be not drinking gasoline when they do.
I think Damon Arnette is another guy that’s improved these past five weeks. He worries me much less than Sheffield, who is small and will more than likely be targeted to begin the game.
Kevin: I wouldn’t be that worried. I honestly do not think any of those guys have played poorly at all up to this point, really even against Indiana and Oklahoma. This might be the best group of receivers they’ve faced all season, but I think they’re up to the task.
I’m more interested to see how they handle themselves tackling in the run game, because once Saquon Barkley bounces it outside, they’re going to have to make tackles, but Damon Arnette has especially impressed me with that aspect of his game.
Joshua: Damon Arnette has gotten more consistent as a playmaker in the pass game as the season has gone on. I think that early on, these matchups will be important to look at but I have absolute faith that our young defenders will absolutely hold their own. Also keep in mind, rush and cover work together. If the defensive line can make McSorely uncomfortable and interrupt some timing in the pass game, these matchups become more favorable for the Bucks.
Dan: I believe Ohio State's cornerbacks will hold their own in this game. Arnette will be a crucial player for the Buckeyes on Saturday, because he will be the one tasked with covering Hamilton when Hamilton is in the slot and the Buckeyes are in their nickel defense, but he has played better – particularly in the slot – than he's gotten credit for this season. Sheffield has been the weak link of the group, but his play – though plagued with pass interference penalties – has improved over the course of the season too. I don't think we'll see Okudah get significant playing time in this game unless one of the top three cornerbacks gets injured (or picks up another targeting penalty). The Buckeyes' cornerbacks had their share of struggles against Indiana, Oklahoma and Nebraska, but those three teams all arguably have better wide receivers than Penn State. While Barkley and Gesicki are Penn State's best playmakers, the wide receivers themselves are solid – Hamilton is the best of the bunch – but not world-beaters.
The Buckeyes had the Nittany Lions beat last year as they led 21-7 entering the fourth quarter before a blocked punt leading a field goal and a blocked field goal for a touchdown sealed Ohio State’s fate. This year Buckeye special teams again haven’t been good and now they face a Penn State squad that lines Barkley up on kickoff return. Would you kick to him at all? Should OSU fans be concerned about whether or not special teams could decide this game or subscribe to theory that lightning won’t strike twice?
Dan: If the Buckeyes have a kicker who is capable of kicking the ball through the end zone on a consistent basis (Urban Meyer has suggested they might not), then that's absolutely what they should do. While it would help the Buckeyes' defense to be able to pin kickoffs down inside the 20 and force Penn State to put together long drives, the Buckeyes really can't afford to get cute against Barkley, who has the game-breaking athleticism to quickly nullify the speed advantage the Buckeyes usually have in kickoff coverage. It's simply not worth the risk of Barkley returning a kickoff for a touchdown if there's a way to avoid it while still maintaining decent field position. But the fact that the Buckeyes haven't been able to figure out a consistently effective kickoff strategy this season, while also suffering from some other inconsistency on special teams, is a real reason for concern. I don't expect Penn State to return another blocked kick for a touchdown, because those are the type of plays that simply don't happen often, but it's certainly possible that special teams could decide this game. The Buckeyes can't afford to make mistakes in that phase of the game.
DJ: Meyer talks a big game but his kickoff team and field goal units have been mediocre pretty much his entire tenure here. Barkley scares the shit out of me as a kick returner. I know Meyer’s pride would never let him do it, but I wouldn’t be upset if they squibbed every kick.
Kevin: Here’s the thing. Outside of the Maryland game, in which special teams were a straight up dumpster fire across the board, Ohio State’s special teams play has not been bad. I daresay it’s generally been good, even. I wouldn’t be worried about punts, extra points or even field goals.
The one area that has not been good all season is the kickoff game, and that should scare the hell out of Buckeye fans.
I wrote a bit about it this week, but a quick TL;DR on the current kickoff scheme is this: if the ball isn’t kicked between the numbers and the sideline, the coverage team is in a very bad spot. It means the returner fairly easily beat the Buckeyes to the field and bust a deep outside return.
This week, that returner happens to be the best player in the nation. Urban Meyer and Sean Nuernberger seem optimistic they’ve got things figured out with extra practice during the off week, but there’s no margin for error when you’re kicking to Saquon Barkley.
Joshua: I know special teams had to be a point of emphasis during the bye week and for game week preparation. The Buckeyes can absolutely kick to Barkley as long as they're confident in kick placement. The advantage of kicking to him is controlling field position by pinning them deep and getting more hits on Barkley throughout the game.
In a game like this, special teams comes into play big time. Hidden yardage, field position and explosive plays all usually change games and even potential outcomes. Ohio State will want to block a punt, so be on high alert each time the punt team is on the field.
I feel like J.K. Dobbins could be a difference-maker in more ways than one as his ability to hit a home run is something Penn State didn’t have to account for last year with Mike Weber (no slight, just reality). What kind of night do you expect from Dobbins and behind his rushing tally, will his presence in the lineup do anything to alter how Penn State schemes to stop the pass in down and distance situations where a run or pass is a viable option?
Joshua: I wouldn't be surprised to see a 150 yard night out of Dobbins. Between explosive runs and his overall carry total, I think he's in for a big night. These games are typically the ones when coach Meyer relies on his run games to get the offense going. It's relatively safe and it opens up huge windows for play action and vertical passes. The offense goes as he and Weber go on Saturday, and I think it'll be a huge night.
Kevin: I know this sounds insane, but I keep forgetting about J.K. Dobbins. The passing game has been so good the past few games and I’ve been so caught up in whether or not the success is going to continue on Saturday that I just sort of forgot.
Yeah he’s really good, and I like that they’re starting to run him outside a bit. You saw him score a big one on a outside zone with a lead blocker. I think his success completely depends on what Penn State does. I expect Ohio State to run a lot of option stuff, and one way or another, Dobbins affects the game. Either they key on him, freeing up other people to make plays, or they don’t and he makes them pay.
DJ: Ohio State will be able to run the ball if they stick with it, unlike the Clemson debacle. My bold prediction is Dobbins finishes with more rushing yards than Barkley.
As for altering the scheme, that will depend on J.T. Barrett’s accuracy and the receivers’ ability to separate. Because you already know Penn State is going to stuff the box from the jump.
Dan: Dobbins should perform well – as he has in every game so far in his Ohio State career – but how much impact he makes on the game as a whole will depend on how Ohio State utilizes him. Since running him 29 times in the season opener at Indiana, the Buckeyes haven't given him half that many carries since. I don't necessarily expect any game-breaking runs from Dobbins against Penn State's defense, which has allowed only four runs of 20-plus yards all year, but I do think he has enough of a presence as a big-play threat that he could entice the Nittany Lions to keep an extra defender in the box when he is in the game even when they anticipate a passing play. If Penn State does that, I'd expect the Buckeyes to use the run-pass option to their advantage and J.T. Barrett to read the defense and find the short to intermediate passes that might be left open in turn.
Ohio State’s true wideouts (no H-backs) accounted for just five receptions last season against Penn State even though J.T. Barrett tallied a career-high 28 completions. This season, after a rough start, the wideouts appear to have developed not only their skill set but chemistry and trust with Barrett. Will the true wideouts have a positive impact on Saturday night’s game? If so, which guy(s) are you keying on? Will Barrett have any success getting the ball downfield or do you expect the offense will stick with hammering the short stuff and mesh routes, looking for big plays coming more via YAC than downfield throws?
Dan: I think the wide receivers will have a positive impact for the Buckeyes on Saturday night's game. Parris Campbell is an obvious choice to make plays for the Buckeyes offense – as long as he catches the passes that hit him in the hands – but I also think this is a game where the Buckeyes could look to their two sophomores, Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor, to play bigger roles as downfield receivers, as they are probably the two most talented true receivers on the roster. I think Barrett will hit a few big downfield throws in this game, with Victor and Mack being prime potential targets, but I also don't think the Buckeyes will get away from doing what they do best. Ohio State will continue to rely heavily on mesh routes and bubble screens, but if the Buckeyes can hit even a couple deep balls, that should spread out Penn State's defense and open up lanes for receivers like Campbell, K.J. Hill and Johnnie Dixon to potentially turn short passes into big gains.
Joshua: It's been great to see the passing game open up lately. I told fans the offense wasn't terrible and J.T. wasn't broken. It's was obviously rough early on, but they've put in the time and work to make it better.
I think Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin both need to have at least one explosive reception. Explosive passes tend to be a difference maker in big games. And it softens the defense for the run game. Austin Mack needs to be solid. Ben Victor should be big in the red zone; OSU will need touchdowns, not field goals, to break this game open. K.J. Hill is also a name to look out for. He's been responsible for some huge plays, but still seems under the radar to me. I look forward to a big game from him.
Kevin: I don’t really love this question, because to me, an H-back is just a wide receiver that plays in the slot – especially in this year’s version of the Buckeye offense. I don’t really understand excluding their numbers as part of this question, but I’ll play along.
Penn State plays more man-to-man than any team Ohio State’s faced thus far (except Maryland, but like, it’s Maryland), so it’s really tough to tell what the Buckeyes will do schematically, but I do know that the receivers love man-to-man match-ups and have had plenty of reps against great cover corners in practice since last spring.
These receivers are recruited, coached and trained to beat man coverage, and quite frankly, it’ll be a disappointment if they don’t do that on Saturday, even against a great secondary like Penn State’s.
DJ: Like Barrett, let me see how they perform against Penn State before I believe in any resurrection. The criticism hasn’t come from games against inferior opponents.
So I don’t know how they’re going to perform Saturday afternoon, and I’m not going to act like I do. If there is a big game, it will come from either Parris Campbell or K.J. Hill, with Ben Victor proving to be a red zone threat against a quality opponent for the first time.
They may take a crack or two downfield, but I don’t think Barrett turned into Brett Favre overnight. If he has a big night, it’s going to come from YAC on short passes (like Campbell’s 74-yarder against Indiana).
Who wins the line of scrimmage – Ohio State’s offensive line or Penn State’s defensive line? Why?
Kevin: This was the game last year that sort of exposed the Ohio State offensive line, but I really don’t think that’s going to be the case this time. The slobs have looked good through the first half of the season, particularly on the outside. If there’s any cause for concern, it’s Demetrius Knox at right guard position (you never want the head coach to declare a position race “wide open” less than two weeks before the biggest game of the season), but with the way he played against Nebraska, I’m not really concerned about that either.
I think the more important matchup for me is Ohio State’s defensive line against Penn State’s offensive line. With one of the best defensive lines in the country against probably the Nittany Lions’ worst offensive unit, the Buckeyes should have a decisive advantage there. I think if Penn State’s going to win, they have to somehow slow down that Buckeye pass rush, and I don’t see that happening.
DJ: This battle could easily decide the game, as the offensive line has gotten pushed back in all of Meyer’s losses. I’d like to think facing a better defensive line in practice would help Saturday, as will being at home. I’m not sure if they’ll outright dominate, but I expect the offensive line to perform well enough to win.
Demetrius Knox needs to leave his soul on the field, too.
Joshua: Ohio State's offensive line play will be defined by this game, like it or not. They lost Branden Bowen and he was a big cog up front. They need to come up big. Consistent, tough and nasty. Solid on the edges. Don't allow negative plays in the run game and keep J.T. upright. It's gonna be a hell of a task. Penn State has a very good front seven, but Urban has probably challenged them and they will respond.
Dan: I don't necessarily expect Ohio State's offensive line to "win" this battle, because Penn State's defensive line has been stout, but I do think the Ohio State offensive line will acquit itself much better than last year, when the Buckeyes really struggled up front and gave up six sacks. Right tackle Isaiah Prince, the clear weak link against the Nittany Lions last year, appears to be vastly improved this year. Center Billy Price should win many of his battles inside, as he almost always does. Left tackle Jamarco Jones should be solid if not dominant on the edge. The biggest question going into this game is at right guard, where Demetrius Knox is set to make just his second start. The Buckeyes offensive line has played well this season, so I expect them to hold their own, but I think Penn State will make it tough for the Buckeyes in the run game and create some disruption in the backfield at times.
A surprise to me at least, Ohio State opened as a 7-point favorite to beat the Nittany Lions though the line has since moved to -6. Is that too big? Give us your final score and game MVP.
Joshua: I this it's fair. Personally, I expect a lot from my guys, so I think it's gonna be a wider margin than most will expect. I'm saying 35-24 Buckeyes. Game MVP's (because I can't pick just one) are J.T. and Dobbins for offense and the whole D-Line for defense. The game will be won on the ground on offense and in the trenches on defense.
Dan: I think the opening line was too high, though the Buckeyes were still 6- or 6.5-point favorites (depending on where you look) as of Thursday, which means there's plenty of bettors who believe the Buckeyes can win by a touchdown or more. If I was a betting man, though, I wouldn't put my money on beating a No. 2-ranked, undefeated team by two scores. Personally, I expect this to be a one-score game – much like last year's game in State College – that comes down to who can make a big play in the fourth quarter. Those games often sway in favor of the home team, which could give Ohio State an advantage. Ultimately, though, I have to base my pick on who looks like the more complete team on the football field, and that in my opinion is Penn State based on what I've seen this season. So I'm predicting a Penn State victory, 28-24, with a game MVP of Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda, who has been all over the field for the Nittany Lions and who I expect to have a big showing against the Buckeyes for a second year in a row.
DJ: As we say in the City of Kings: ‘Bout right. The Nittany Lions aren’t the same team on the road, and Ohio State is coming off an open week (obligatory mention of Meyer being 21-1 on such occasions).
Prophecy: 35-24, local team. MVP: J.K. Dobbins introduces himself to the nation.
Kevin: The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Ohio State will win decisively. It might be close early on, but I think the Buckeyes pull away. I think the passing game is indeed as good as advertised, and Ohio State’s defensive line overwhelms Penn State’s offensive line.
My MVP is J.T. Barrett. I think he has a huge game, similar to the one he had in East Lansing a few years ago, and propels himself into the Heisman conversation.
Also, they might as well call the game if Ohio State takes the field to Kanye’s “Wolves” on Saturday.