As Dwayne Haskins has completed more than 75 percent of his passing attempts for 1,194 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first four games as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, emerging as a likely future first-round NFL draft pick in the process, he’s reignited the debate – a debate that was held among the Buckeyes’ fan base for nearly all of last season – over whether he should have been the starting quarterback last year instead of J.T. Barrett.
For one game last season, however, Barrett silenced his doubters.
That game came against Penn State, when Barrett had what could be considered the best game of his Ohio State career – and one of the greatest single-game performances in the Buckeyes’ rivalry with the Nittany Lions – when he completed 33-of-39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns, including his final 16 throws of the game, while also rushing for 95 yards on 17 carries in leading the Buckeyes to a fourth-quarter comeback and 39-38 victory at Ohio Stadium.
On that night, Barrett clearly got the best of the Penn State defense, and was able to carry the Buckeyes to their signature win of the 2017 season, solidifying his place in Ohio State lore despite the external criticism that his play often received.
There’s certainly a case to be made now, though, that Haskins is better than Barrett – at least as a pure passer – and even though Barrett picked apart the Nittany Lions’ defense last year, some Penn State defensive players said this week that they believe Haskins has elevated Ohio State’s passing game to another level.
“I think the guy’s just playing with confidence right now, and that’s dangerous when a guy’s playing with confidence,” said Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye. “And the difference between him and J.T. Barrett, I just think that his arm is just a little bit better, a little bit stronger and I guess he’s making smarter decisions with the ball right now.”
Penn State coach James Franklin, who attempted to recruit Haskins to become a Nittany Lion out of high school, also had considerable praise for Ohio State’s new starting quarterback this week and the challenges he will present to the Nittany Lions defense.
"He's able to make you account for all 53 1/3 (width of the field in yards) because of his arm strength and because of the athleticism that they have,” Franklin said of Haskins. “That helps their running game. That helps their passing game, that he's able to really distribute the ball to so many weapons that they've been able to recruit and develop.”
“I think the guy’s just playing with confidence right now, and that’s dangerous when a guy’s playing with confidence.”– Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye on Dwayne Haskins
The trade-off with what Haskins brings to Ohio State’s offense as a passer is that he isn’t nearly as much of a runner. While Barrett ran the ball 17 times in last year’s game against Penn State, Haskins has only 10 rushing attempts for the Buckeyes’ entire season.
Penn State’s defenders have noticed that difference, and that’s changed the way they’ve prepared to face Ohio State’s offense, too.
“He’s not as mobile as J.T. and Braxton (Miller), and I think that is a little different from what we’ve been used to seeing these past couple years, and I think it has changed their offense, and how they attack defenses a little bit differently,” Penn State safety Garrett Taylor said.
In terms of overall scheme, however, the Nittany Lions say they have seen many of the same concepts on film from Ohio State’s offense that they saw last year, so while the change from Barrett to Haskins has given them a different kind of threat to prepare for from the quarterback position, they’re still expecting to see some of the same plays from the Buckeyes that they’ve seen in the past.
“I think for the most part, it’s a lot of the same stuff,” Taylor said. “You still have a lot of the same guys on the outside with (Parris) Campbell, (Johnnie) Dixon, (Terry) McLaurin at receiver; you still have (J.K.) Dobbins and (Mike) Weber at running back. And they still have some of the same run concepts in there. You just don’t see Haskins pulling it as much as J.T. or Braxton would.”
Penn State has a lot of respect for Ohio State’s wide receivers and running backs; Franklin described Dobbins and Weber as “two of the better backs in the country” and Campbell and K.J. Hill as receivers who “can change the game at any moment.”
Franklin is also impressed with what he’s seen from Ohio State’s offensive line, considering it to be the best offensive line the Buckeyes have had since he became Penn State’s coach in 2014.
“They are massive,” Franklin said. “You look at them on film and it's like they're all legs. Unusual you see a 6-foot-7 center (Michael Jordan). That's not something you typically see, and they're pretty much 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-7 across the board, about 315 pounds across the board. This is a big, athletic offensive line, and I think they kind of set the tone for everything.”
In order to have a chance to slow down Ohio State’s offense, which has averaged 599 yards per game while the Buckeyes have scored 54.5 points per game, Penn State’s defense must perform better than it has in its first four games of the season, in which it only allowed 19.5 points per game and 345.8 yards per game but against Appalachian State, Pittsburgh, Kent State and Illinois – four teams that aren’t nearly as talented as Ohio State.
Even with Haskins’ ability to make big plays as a passer, the Nittany Lions believe the most important steps for their defense to play better this week are to stop the run and be accountable for their gaps.
“Obviously they have a really balanced attack, in terms of on the ground and through the air, and they have some talented guys at wide receiver,” Taylor said. “But we believe we have a talented secondary and that we’re going to be able to challenge these guys, and it’s going to be a good matchup. I think if we can put all that together, we can play a pretty complete game on defense, and do what we need to do to be successful.”