Five Things to Know About Penn State, Ohio State's Second Opponent of the 2020 Season

By Dan Hope on October 26, 2020 at 8:35 am
Sean Clifford vs. Indiana
Marc Lebryk – USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s second game of the season against Penn State isn’t going to be the matchup of top-10 teams that it was expected to be, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be the Buckeyes’ first major test of the year.

Penn State will still be looking for its first win of the season – and to keep any remaining College Football Playoff hopes alive – when it hosts Ohio State on Saturday night after suffering a stunning overtime loss to Indiana, 36-35, this past weekend. The Nittany Lions dropped to 18th in the AP poll as a result, and the Buckeyes are favored to win by double digits; though the spread opened at only eight points, the line had already increased to as high as 13 points at some online sportsbooks by Sunday night.


7:30 P.M. – SATURDAY, OCT. 31


Still, Penn State will present a step up in competition for the Buckeyes from their season opener against Nebraska. The Nittany Lions are still the most talented team other than Ohio State in the Big Ten, and they really shouldn’t have lost to the Hoosiers; Penn State gained more than twice as many yards as Indiana (488 to 211), but were doomed by a litany of mistakes, including three turnovers, three missed field goals and an ill-timed touchdown by Devyn Ford that prevented the Nittany Lions from running out the clock and allowed the Hoosiers to tie the game and force regulation.

Over the past four years, no other Big Ten team has been as consistently competitive with the Buckeyes – Penn State beat Ohio State in 2016, lost by just one point in 2017 and 2018 and was the only team to finish within 24 points of the Buckeyes during the 2019 regular season – so Ohio State would be foolish to expect anything less than a challenge when it heads to Happy Valley this weekend for its first road game and first night game of the year.

“We got a huge task ahead of us,” Ryan Day said after Ohio State’s win over Nebraska, which came before Penn State’s loss to Indiana. “We gotta go to Penn State on the road and win a night game, and so this is going to be a huge week in terms of preparation, and it starts in a few hours here.”

While Ohio State’s preparation for the Nittany Lions has already been going since Saturday night, we’ll help you start gearing up for the Buckeyes’ trip to State College right now with a first look at Ohio State’s second opponent of the 2020 season.

Only One 0-2 Start Since 2002

Comparing this season to any previous season is an apples-to-oranges comparison, given that this is a shortened season in which Big Ten teams are only playing conference games, but the fact remains that there have been very few 0-2 starts in Penn State’s recent history. In the Nittany Lions’ past 18 seasons, the only time they started the year with back-to-back losses was in 2012 – the year after Joe Paterno’s unceremonious departure – when they dropped their first two games against Ohio University and Virginia.

In the past four seasons, Penn State has only lost back-to-back games at any point in the season twice. Both of those instances, though, have involved the Buckeyes – in both 2017 and 2018, Penn State lost to Michigan State one game after losing to Ohio State.

Penn State hasn’t started 0-2 in Big Ten play since 2010, when the Nittany Lions dropped their first two conference games against Iowa and Illinois and went on to finish the year just 7-6.

They Rarely Lose at Home

With a .778 winning percentage since 2016, Penn State hasn’t lost a lot of games anywhere in recent years, but the Nittany Lions have been particularly successful at home. Dating back to the start of the 2016 season, Penn State is 26-2 in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium, with both of the losses coming in the aforementioned back-to-back defeats against Ohio State and Michigan State in 2018. The Nittany Lions have the nation’s fifth-highest home winning percentage during that span, behind only Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and UAB.

Their home-field advantage, which is certainly bolstered significantly by the raucous crowds that typically fill Beaver Stadium, could be dissipated this year by the Big Ten’s decision not to allow fans at games due to COVID-19. Unlike its last four games against Ohio State, Penn State will be unable to host a White Out this year, and a stadium that’s known for being one of college football’s loudest will be much, much quieter for this year’s home opener.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of recent history to suggest that Penn State usually plays its best when it’s at its home stadium, which makes this game at least somewhat more daunting than it would be for Ohio State if the game was being played at the Shoe.

Beaver Stadium
There will be no sellout crowd at Beaver Stadium for Saturday's game. (Photo: Matthew O'Haren – USA TODAY Sports)

Clifford and Freiermuth Pose Threats

In Ohio State’s season opener on Saturday, there were two particular aspects of Nebraska’s offense that noticeably caused some problems for the Buckeyes’ defense: Quarterback runs and passes to the tight ends. Nebraska quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey combined for 164 of the Cornhuskers’ 217 rushing yards, while tight ends Austin Allen and Jack Stoll combined for 54 yards on four catches and were two of the Cornhuskers’ top three pass-catchers in the game.

Ohio State is going to have to work on improving in both of those areas this week, because the tests they’ll face in those areas from Penn State will only get tougher.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is coming off the best rushing performance of his career, gaining 119 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Indiana, and he has more weapons around him to throw the ball to than Martinez.

Chief among those weapons is Pat Freiermuth, who had seven catches for 60 yards and a touchdown against the Hoosiers and is arguably the best tight end in college football. Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner did a good job holding him in check last season, limiting Freiermuth to just 40 yards on six catches, but he probably won’t be matched up with Freiermuth this year after his move to Will linebacker, so the Buckeyes need to come up with a good game plan for covering him.

Another Penn State weapon to watch for is wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who led the Nittany Lions with 94 yards on just four catches – highlighted by a 60-yard touchdown – in their season opener. The Nittany Lions could be without their top two running backs for Saturday’s game, however, as Journey Brown is currently sidelined due to an undisclosed medical condition while Noah Cain left the Indiana game early with an apparent ankle injury.

Toney, Wade Among Defensive Stars

Penn State is also without its biggest star on defense, Micah Parsons, as the reigning All-American and Big Ten Linebacker of the Year opted out of the 2020 season and did not return even after the fall season was reinstated. They’ll also be without another one of their top linebackers, Jesse Luketa, for the first half of this week’s game after he was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter of the Indiana game.

That said, Penn State still has plenty of playmakers on defense, highlighted by senior defensive end Shaka Toney and senior safety Lamont Wade. Toney had seven total tackles and two sacks in the Nittany Lions’ season opener, and will provide a tougher pass-rushing test on the edge than anyone Ohio State faced against Nebraska. Wade, who forced three fumbles against Ohio State last year, had an interception and a fumble recovery against Indiana.

Shaka Toney
Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney is one of the Big Ten's best pass-rushers. (Photo: Matthew O'Haren – USA TODAY Sports)

While it’s never good to allow 36 points in a game, the Nittany Lions’ defense didn’t play nearly as badly as the scoreboard would indicate against Indiana, as they allowed only 211 yards on 3.4 yards per play, the best marks of any Big Ten team in Week 1. They’ll pose a stiffer challenge to Justin Fields and the Buckeyes’ offense than Nebraska could.

Concerns in the Kicking Game

As aforementioned, Penn State missed all three of its field goal attempts against Indiana. One of those was actually a great effort – Jordan Stout’s 57-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation just barely came up short – but Jake Pinegar also missed 25- and 47-yard field goal attempts earlier in the game.

Leaving those points on the field was enough to cost the Nittany Lions a win at Indiana, so they certainly can’t afford to miss those opportunities if they’re going to have a chance to upset Ohio State. And those weren’t the only issues Penn State had on special teams in their season opener.

Stout wasn’t great in his first game as Penn State’s punter, averaging less than 40 yards per punt on three punts, and they also struggled in the return game, including one kickoff return where Wade was tackled at the 5-yard line, ultimately leading to an Indiana touchdown after Clifford threw an interception deep in Penn State territory.

If those woes persist, special teams just might be the phase of the game where Ohio State has the biggest advantage in Saturday’s matchup.

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