Luke Farrell’s first touchdown for Ohio State this season almost made the Northeast Ohio native cry, and his second score, a one-handed snag against Rutgers, put him on a comet toward SportsCenter’s top 10 plays. Those plays account for two of his four catches in 10 games as a redshirt junior.
Some call that efficiency or making the most of opportunities. Others, possibly including Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth, might wonder whether Jeremy Ruckert, Rashod Berry, Jake Hausmann and Farrell have been used enough considering the quartet could arguably be viewed as one of the strongest units on the team.
The second-ranked Buckeyes and eighth-ranked Nittany Lions, who match up against each other Ohio Stadium on Saturday at noon, use their tight ends in different ways, leading to a stark contrast between the production of the two teams' tight ends as pass threats.
Freiermuth, arguably the best tight end Ohio State will face this season, has caught 34 passes for 424 yards and seven touchdowns, with at least one reception in all 10 of Penn State's games. In a loss to Minnesota, he caught seven passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. Earlier in the season, the 6-foot-5, 256-pound sophomore had an eight-catch, 99-yard, two-touchdown performance against Buffalo and caught three touchdowns in a win versus Michigan State.
Ohio State’s four regularly-used tight ends, each of whom have played between 169 and 304 snaps through 10 games, comparatively have a combined 16 catches for 205 yards and six touchdowns this season. Ruckert leads the group with nine catches, 103 yards and three touchdowns. Farrell has four catches for 73 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hausmann has two catches and one touchdown, and Berry has a single catch. Most of their contributions have come as blockers for a running game that averages 6.15 yards per carry, the fourth-best mark in the nation.
The difference in receiving production between Freiermuth and Ohio State’s four tight ends is stark. Even so, there hasn't been much discussion within Kevin Wilson’s room about proving they’re as impactful as Friermuth, per Farrell.
“We obviously watch a lot of their defense. We don't pay a ton of attention to their offense,” Farrell said on Wednesday evening. “We just want to be the best group we can be.”
The numbers don't always back up when Ohio State’s tight ends have played their best, and that could again be the case on Saturday. There have been three games in which all four of them have gone without a catch, yet nobody inside the program has complained whatsoever about their collective production, largely due to their blocking capabilities.
Farrell is viewed as the best run blocker, and Berry and Hausmann have shown their ability in that area. Ruckert, though he mainly played wide receiver in high school, has made continual strides as a blocker, too.
“We take pride in that up front as O-line and tight end units,” Farrell said. “It's a huge goal of ours. Just control the line of scrimmage. That's a big part of winning those games.”
Sometimes, passes come their way. Most of the time, they’re spending their time blocking.
“Whenever they need us, we're going to be there,” Farrell said.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes might need them through the air. But even if they don’t contribute much as pass-catchers, their contributions will still make a difference in the run game.
Penn State will need Freiermuth to make an impact through the air. He ranks second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, trailing only K.J. Hamler in all three categories. As such an important target for Sean Clifford, he’s naturally a key player for Ohio State’s defense to stop.
“I've had to work a lot on man coverage this week,” linebacker Pete Werner said. “He's a big, big target, and he runs routes well. But with big challenges, you get excited for that. Excited to play in a game like this, play against one of the better guys that I've played against this year.”
The best receiving tight end Ohio State has faced up until this point, Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant, had six receptions for 79 yards against the Buckeyes.
Freiermuth, who outweighs Bryant by 16 pounds, will pose a similar challenge. He’s a steady, big-bodied threat down the field who hasn’t caught any pass for more than 28 yards but also has a reception for at least 14 yards in all but one game.
“Playing against those bigger guys, you really have to focus,” Werner said. “You really have to be in the right place and use your hands very well to defend.”
So, what’s the right place for a linebacker to be when covering a tight end the size of Freiermuth?
“I just categorize the right place as being in the right leverage, whatever the leverage is called, whether we're outside, inside,” Werner said. “I feel like just maintaining their leverage and staying close to the guy, close as possible, is the right place. The wrong place is obviously not that.”
Ohio State knows exactly what it'll get from Freiermuth. And if it can manage to minimize his impact as a receiver, the defense would put a significant dent into Penn State's plans through the air.
On the other side of the ball, it's as unclear as ever how much the Buckeyes will rely on Farrell, Ruckert, Berry and Hausmann through the air. One way or another, Ryan Day and Wilson will have them in Saturday's game plan. They'd just prefer to keep the Nittany Lions guessing until it kicks off.