Chase Young is back. FOX's Big Noon Kickoff is here. ESPN's College GameDay is here. Hell, BTN Tailgate is even here.
It's a big one.
Ryan Day's No.2-ranked Buckeyes look to take down No. 8 Penn State on senior day in the Horseshoe, earning a ticket to the Big Ten championship game in the process.
Can Ohio State run the ball effectively versus Penn State's stout rush defense or will Justin Fields have to win the game against the Nittany Lions' suspect secondary?
What about an under-the-radar guy that might come up huge?
Ohio State continues to lead the country in scoring defense and total defense. However, Penn State could present a more difficult challenge. Beyond the playmakers like K.J. Hamler, quarterback Sean Clifford is a willing runner and the Nittany Lions love to get tight end Pat Freiermuth in favorable coverage matchups. What facet of Penn State’s attack could cause Ohio State the most trouble?
Dan: I think Penn State's passing attack, as a whole, is the most dangerous Ohio State has faced yet this season. Hamler, as Ohio State fans will remember from his 93-yard touchdown last season, presents more of a big-play threat than the Buckeyes have faced all year. Freiermuth is one of the top two tight ends Ohio State will face this season, and the other, Florida Atlantic's Harrison Bryant, had some success against the Buckeyes' defense (six receptions for 79 yards) in the season opener. Jahan Dotson is another weapon the Nittany Lions have on the outside – Ryan Day said this week that Dotson is "as good a wide receiver as there is in the Big Ten" – and Clifford might be the best downfield passer Ohio State has faced. All of that will put Ohio State's passing defense to the test, and even though the Buckeyes have done an excellent job of limiting big plays this season, I wouldn't be surprised if we see the Nittany Lions hit a couple on Saturday.
Andrew: Though he got banged up last week, I’m operating under the assumption that K.J. Hamler will be back on the field Saturday in Columbus. The Buckeyes have three high-end cornerbacks, but I always worry about a player with Hamler’s type of speed. Last year’s 93-yard touchdown was aided by the poor angles we saw the Buckeyes taking throughout the season. That hasn’t been a problem in 2019, and Hamler is the guy they have to contain.
Andy: Penn State is a fairly pass-heavy team when you look at the numbers – they’re averaging 253.5 yards per game through the air versus 173 on the ground – but quarterback Sean Clifford can beat you through the air and with his feet. The junior from Cincinnati is completing just shy of 60% of his passes, but has thrown a half-dozen picks against his 22 touchdowns, so the Buckeye defense may have opportunities to make some plays there.
When you look at the games where Penn State was in a dogfight, teams like Iowa and and Michigan were able to grind them down and largely bottle up their rushing attack. The Nittany Lions don’t have a standout running back as they’ve had in years past, but Clifford has nearly 500 yards rushing to his credit (along with 5 touchdowns), so Ohio State needs to keep him in the pocket and keep him in check.
Penn State’s pass defense ranks just 84th in the country, giving up 240 yards per game but the group has given up just eight touchdowns through the air, good for the sixth-fewest in the land. Will Justin Fields and the Buckeye receivers be able to get the Nittany Lions’ secondary on its heels? What kind of statistical day do you foresee from Fields in the passing game?
Andy: This is precisely how the Golden Gophers upended the Lions. Penn State averaged 6.1 yards per play rushing and 7.7 yards per play passing against Minnesota, but scored three touchdowns through the air while averaging nearly 17 yards per passing attempt. Given that Fields and the resurgent Ohio State receiving corps are more talented than their counterparts from the Twin Cities, I expect Ryan Day to exploit Penn State’s weaknesses here for sure.
Fields had a career day last weekend versus Rutgers, notching his first 300+ yard game against a pretty hapless defense. He’s averaging 9.4 yards per attempt, which is pretty nifty, and has that vaunted 31-1 touchdown to interception ratio going for him… which I believe is the best in the country. So I expect to see him pick apart the Penn State secondary to the tune of 200+ with 2 TDs and maybe a score on the ground for good measure.
Andrew: I do expect Fields and the Ohio State pass-catchers to have a nice showing on Saturday. Minnesota and Indiana both did a number against a PSU secondary that looked completely lost at times. I don’t think Fields will hit 300 yards again, but I can foresee a 275-yard performance with three touchdown passes.
Dan: A few weeks ago, Colin Hass-Hill and I were asked on Real Pod Wednesdays if we thought Justin Fields would have a 350-yard passing game this season. We both said no at the time, but I've changed my answer. I think the Buckeyes will look to exploit Penn State's shaky pass defense – it's been especially shaky in the past two weeks, giving up more than 300 yards in back-to-back games and four combined touchdowns against Minnesota and Indiana – and I think Fields will play all 60 minutes for just the second time this season and have a huge day as a result. It's possible the weather could force the Buckeyes to lean on the ground game more heavily, but Ryan Day didn't seem too concerned about it when I asked him on Thursday.
While Penn State’s pass defense hasn’t been overwhelming, its rush defense ranks No. 1 in the country giving up just 2.19 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Ohio State enters averaging 6.15 yards per carry which is good for No. 4 in the land. Who wins the line of scrimmage here? What kind of day do you expect from J.K. Dobbins and roughly how many carries might Fields see in a supporting ground-game role?
Dan: Penn State has a very good run defense, but it seems like most times an Ohio State opponent gets hyped up as having a great run defense – this year's games against Michigan State and Wisconsin and the 2017 game against Michigan State come to mind – the Buckeyes end up running wild. I will predict that Penn State holds Ohio State to a season-low in rushing yards on Saturday, but only because the Buckeyes have rushed for more than 200 yards in every game this season. I'm expecting a good battle in the trenches between Ohio State's offensive front and Penn State's defensive front, but ultimately, I think Dobbins will get the tough yards the Buckeyes need to win the game. I think Fields will throw the ball far more than he'll run it, but I'll still say he hits double-digit carries for the fifth time this season.
Andy: Dobbins is the best running back in the country for my money, and I don’t think Penn State slows that train down. Ohio State has faced several stout run defenses already this season, and the road graders have opened holes and Dobbins has found pay dirt every time. He’s averaging 7.6 yards per carry against teams in the Top 25, and hit 8.2 versus Wisconsin, a team that knows how to defend a rushing attack.
With Dobbins and Fields in the backfield together, I think we’ll see Dobbins with roughly 20 carries and two scores, with Fields adding 10 carries and a touchdown himself. Penn State will have to pick its poison here - sell out to stop the run and get gouged to death through the air, or keep guys home to shut down some passing lanes and let Dobbins have a Heisman-worthy day. Either way works for the Buckeyes.
Andrew: I know the rankings say the Nittany Lions are superb against the run, but the same can be said for Wisconsin and we all know how that one turned out. I expect both J.K. Dobbins and Justin Fields to get it done on the ground. I’m predicting a 100-yard performance for Dobbins and a couple touchdowns. Fields pitches in with seven carries for another 30-40 yards and a touchdown of his own.
In big games like this, everyone focuses on the stars but who is a guy not named Fields, Dobbins or Chase Young that you expect to step up big time against Penn State?
Andrew: Binjimen Victor delivered the play of the game last year in Happy Valley, and I’m feeling another big showing for him this go around. Justin Fields does a great job of spreading the ball around, so I’m not going to predict a prolific yardage total. But I can see Victor coming through with another two-touchdown performance against a shaky PSU secondary.
Dan: Chris Olave would be the obvious answer, but that feels like cheating now that he might be the Buckeyes' fourth-biggest star. So I'll go with Pete Werner, who could play a very important role in the Buckeyes' efforts to shut down Freiermuth in the passing game. While there was a time where it appeared the Buckeyes would turn more to the "bullet" to cover tight ends, they've effectively made Sam linebacker and bullet the same position because of their faith in Werner's versatility and how improved his play has been this season. He's still flying under the radar compared to many of Ohio State's other defensive stars – to the point where some Ohio State fans still believe the Buckeyes should be playing someone else in his place – but this is a game where the Buckeyes need him to be at his best, and I think he will show why he's continued to be a staple in their defensive lineup.
Andy: It feels like you have to start adding Chris Olave to the list of stars alongside the three you named, but he’s a guy I expect to go bananas against this Penn State defense. He hauled in 7 catches for nearly 100 yards against the Badgers a few weeks ago, and just seems to have a knack for making incredible plays. K.J. Hill continues to be mister consistency, and he’ll surely continue to be the team’s reception leader.
On the defensive side of the ball, this games shapes up to be one where Jeff Okudah and Shaun Wade have big days breaking up passes and being ballhawks. Ohio State’s defensive line will be super disruptive, giving the guys in the backfield opportunities to make plays on the ball as Clifford gets desperate to make something happen through the air.
After the line opened at 19.5, Ohio State has settled in as a 17.5-point favorite over the Nittany Lions. Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and game MVP.
Andy: I really struggled with this line; 12-14 felt right, and 19.5 just felt too aggressive in spite of how good Ohio State is this season. I feel confident the Buckeyes cover, although they made a fool of me last week and haven’t covered the week ahead of Michigan for something like the last six seasons according to ESPN’s Chris “The Bear” Fallica. Final score: 42-17 Buckeyes.
Dan: I'm going in between those two spreads and predicting a 38-20 Ohio State win. I think this will be the Buckeyes' closest game of the year to date, but I also don't think it will be as close as their last three games against Penn State. I don't think this is a game in which the Buckeyes will dominate from beginning to end – I expect there to be a point where the Nittany Lions make a run and force Ohio State to respond – but ultimately, I think Ohio State is the better team on both sides of the ball and is playing at a higher level than it did the past few years, which will allow the Buckeyes to eventually seize control of the game and pull away for a three-score win. My prediction for game MVP is Fields, who I believe will have his biggest game of the year and give Heisman Trophy voters something to think about.
Andrew: I was actually expecting the spread to be around 10-12 points (maybe a bit silly on my behalf), so I was a little surprised to see it open closer to 20. That being said, my prediction is for a 47-20 Ohio State win. I think Chase Young immediately makes his presence felt and has a memorable performance like the one against the Badgers. Victor is one of the stars on offense, but Young takes home MVP honors.