Eleven Warriors Roundtable: Seeking a Happy Halloween In Happy Valley

By Chris Lauderback on October 30, 2020 at 9:20 am
Zach Harrison posted four tackles in last year's win over Penn State.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting a 1-0 record after dumping Nebraska at home last weekend, Ryan Day's Ohio State Buckeyes face their first road test of the season tomorrow night in Beaver Stadium. 

In a normal year, a road trip to Happy Valley would mean 110,000 screaming fans in whiteout attire but with COVID-19 continuing to blow up cool shit, the Buckeyes dodge a bullet as the night game will be played in front of about 1,000 spectators. 

Make no mistake, this is still a big one despite what will be a tepid atmosphere and the fact No. 18 Penn State enters with an 0-1 record after repeatedly shooting itself in the feet last weekend in Bloomington. 

To get your mind right for the showdown, we welcome Dan Hope, Andrew Ellis and Andy Vance to this week's roundtable. 

What was your most surprising observation – good or bad - from last Saturday’s win over Nebraska and why?

Dan: This is probably gonna sound like a cop-out, but I really wasn't too surprised by anything in last Saturday's game. I thought the running backs would get off to a stronger start, but I also wasn't expecting either of them to be J.K. Dobbins, especially not right out of the gates. I expected the defense to have some growing pains, so I really wasn't surprised by the early struggles on that side of the ball. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was Haskell Garrett not only being on the field, but being one of Ohio State's best defensive players, less than two months after he was shot in the face. I had no idea what to expect from him going into the season, so that was great to see. 

Andrew: I think the running game is one of the more obvious choices here, and it’s certainly a fair critique. But I’m gonna go with a contributing factor: the interior offensive line play. Upon rewatch, Wyatt Davis was solid, but I noticed Josh Myers and Harry Miller both had their struggles from time to time. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise for Miller who’s bound to take his lumps as a new starter, but the trio didn’t quite pull off the mauling I had expected against the Huskers. Is this a concern of mine for the long haul? Absolutely not. But Saturday’s effort wasn’t spectacular from my point of view even though they apparently received PFF’s top score among offensive lines.

Andy: On the positive side, I was really surprised by how almost flawless the passing game looked. We all thought it would be pretty great, but between Justin Fields being one dropped touchdown away from a perfect completion percentage and pretty much the entire receiving corps looking like would-be first-rounders, it was a glorious debut for the Buckeye aerial assault. I suppose I just assumed there would be some COVID-related cobwebs that needed to be swept out, but if there were any, they disappeared rather quickly.

The flip side of that coin is that I was befuddled by the rushing attack, or seeming lack thereof. We’ve become a bit entitled to a world-class running game over the past several years, between having a string of NFL-quality backs and offensive linemen. Joel Klatt said early in the game that he thought Ohio State may have the best offensive line in the country this season, but watching Master Teague repeated stuffed at the line of scrimmage gave me pause. Granted, I didn’t think Teague would be the next J.K. Dobbins — they’re very different backs — it just surprised me not to see a Buckeye run game reeling off 4-7 yards pretty much at will.

Zach Harrison wasn’t on the field much early as Tyler Friday and Jonathon Cooper logged snaps at defense end, although he did eventually register a sack. Should fans be concerned at all with the state of things at defensive end and/or Harrison’s ability to impact a game in particular?

Andy: Here again I think the curse of high expectations gave us collective heartburn. Following three of the best to ever do it in Bosa, Bosa and Young, Harrison seemed poised to be the next household name at the position… but following a guy doing what Young is doing as an NFL rookie is a daunting task, particularly when only logging 15 snaps (with one sack to his credit, that’s a pretty decent sack rate?).

Maybe the defensive staff didn’t feel the need to bring more pressure given Nebraska’s run-heavy gameplan, or maybe Larry Johnson wanted to keep his future star healthy heading into Happy Valley this week. Johnson has certainly proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s the best in the business at his craft, so I’m not at all worried about the defensive front at this stage in the season.

Dan: It was surprising to see Harrison play only the fifth-most snaps among defensive ends against Nebraska, but I don't read much into that. Larry Johnson had said before the season that he viewed all of Ohio State's top five defensive ends as starting-caliber players and that they would all rotate, so I believe the rotation will change up from week to week, at least until any of those defensive ends truly separate themselves from the others with their performance. That said, I think it was evident on Saturday that Ohio State doesn't have a Chase Young right now, and I don't think it was ever realistic to expect Harrison to be that at the beginning of his sophomore season. I still think he has the most potential of any of Ohio State's current defensive ends to eventually become that kind of player, but right now, the Buckeyes need multiple defensive ends to step up and show they can make a bigger impact pass-rushers than they have so far in their careers, or the pass-rush could be a weakness for Ohio State this season.

Andrew: The lack of Zach Harrison surprised me at first, but I’m wondering if the staff simply felt more comfortable with Friday and Cooper playing against the run game. Outside of Wan’Dale Robinson, Nebraska is extremely limited at wideout, so perhaps the strategy was to focus on the run on the first few drives. I don’t think there’s any reason for concern regarding Harrison or the position as a whole. We all know how much LJ loves to rotate up front, and he’ll be doing so even more without Chase Young’s disruptive ways.

Ohio State’s defense struggled to contain Nebraska’s quarterbacks in the run game and the tight ends also had some success. Coincidentally, Penn State’s Sean Clifford had a career-high rushing last week and we know tight end Pat Freiermuth is a beast. How concerned should OSU fans be about the defense’s ability to manage those two facets of the Nittany Lions attack?

Andrew: I’m more concerned about Freiermuth than I am Clifford’s rushing ability. He’s one of the best tight ends in America and Penn State isn’t exactly loaded with other pass-catchers. The switcheroo for the outside linebackers and inexperienced safeties could lead to some plays for PSU’s top weapon. Sean Clifford really doesn’t scare me all that much despite what he did again the Hoosiers. I can’t see a scenario where he puts up anywhere close to the 119 rushing yards against Ohio State. He’ll move around from time to time, but he’s no Adrian Martinez or Luke McCaffrey.

Andy: This is the story of the game, for me: can Clifford and Freiermuth keep pace with Fields and his platoon of passcatchers. Although the Nittany Lions had nearly 500 yards of offense against the Hoosiers last week, I’m skeptical that Penn State can outscore the Buckeyes. Look at it this way: Nebraska’s quarterbacks ran for 76% of the Cornhuskers’ 217 rushing hards and their tight ends were two of the team’s top three receivers… and they still lost by 35 points.

Meanwhile, Indiana isn’t exactly known for back-breaking defense, so again, color me skeptical that Penn State will suddenly overwhelm Ohio State’s offense and run roughshod over its defense… which, to its credit, pretty much shut Nebraska down after the first half.

I am pretty excited to see how Clifford and Freiermuth challenge the Buckeye defense, though, because this will clearly be their toughest test until facing the Wolverines late in the season (although maybe I need to give Indiana a little more credit now than I would have a week ago). During Ohio State’s first half versus Nebraska I was admittedly concerned about the defense; but with a few adjustments and superior talent, I felt much better about the situation when the clock showed all zeroes.

Dan: I believe those are the two biggest areas of concern for Ohio State's defense entering this game, particularly Freiermuth, as I'm just not sure who's going to cover him. I correctly predicted in this roundtable last year that Pete Werner would step up and limit Freiermuth in the 2019 game against Penn State, but now that Werner's playing as an inside linebacker, will that prevent Ohio State from going with what worked last year? If the Buckeyes have a sound plan for keeping Freiermuth in check and for limiting Clifford's opportunities to take off and run, I think they should match up well with the rest of Penn State's offense. But if they allow Clifford to make the same kind of plays that Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey made against them last week, and they can't prevent Freiermuth from making big plays, this game could get dangerous. 

Does Michigan have a legit quarterback? Did the win over Minnesota cause you to reevaluate how you perceive the Wolverines as a threat to Ohio State in December?

Dan: Joe Milton was impressive in his starting debut, and I do believe he's a legitimate upgrade over Shea Patterson with his ability to make plays as both a passer and runner, but let's not get carried away here. Minnesota's defense lost most of its stars from last season and had multiple players unavailable for the season opener, so I wasn't expecting the Gophers to be good on that side of the ball, and we've seen Michigan start the season strong only to fade down the stretch plenty of times in recent seasons. That's not to say the same will necessarily happen to the Wolverines this year, and I don't think the rivals should be overlooked as a threat at the end of the regular season, but I still believe Ohio State's toughest competition in the Big Ten East is the team it's playing this Saturday.

Andy: I was really worried about the lack of a September Heisman in Ann Arbor this season… fortunately that honor wasn’t cancelled this year, just postponed, so all is right with the world. Milton fit the bill really well, completing 68% of his passes for 225 yards and a touchdown, with another 60 yards rushing along with a touchdown. Not bad!

But remember, we’ve seen this movie before. Michigan quarterbacks always start the season strong. They just do! Plus, are we sure this wasn’t a case of Minnesota — a short-handed Gopher squad, even — being overhyped heading in to the season? I’m willing to at least consider the possibility that we got a little too excited and rowed the boat into believing Minnesota had a shot here. Harbaugh’s teams have won 9 or 10 games in all but one of his seasons as the head ball coach of his alma mater, and yet they’ve had their backsides handed to them by the Buckeyes every. single. time.

So no, I’m not about to reevaluate how I perceive the Wolverines as a treat to Ohio State at this point. Until they can come to Columbus and make a Ryan Day offense really sweat, I’ll continue to presume the Buckeyes have the upper hand in The Rivalry, Cooper-era PTSD be damned.

Andrew: I’ve been told that Joe Milton is Cam Newton, so yes I’d say he’s legit. In all seriousness, it's hard to get a feel based on the one game against the Gophers. He’s a big, mobile guy who appears to have an insanely strong arm. He also missed some easy throws and doesn’t have an elite group of wideouts at his disposal. I do think he’s a legit quarterback and getting seven games under his belt before the trip to Columbus is great news for Michigan. 

The game didn’t really change my thoughts on the Wolverines. I knew they were going to have a damn good pass rush and Don Brown’s defense is almost always solid against everyone not named Ohio State. As soon as I heard Minnesota would be without its starting guard and tackle, I had a feeling Tanner Morgan would be in for a rough night. From a threat level perspective, I will say that I’ve definitely got Michigan ahead of Penn State now.

Ohio State enters tomorrow’s matchup with Penn State as a 12.5-point favorite. Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and impact player not named Justin Fields.   

Andy: I’m in a bit of a bind here. Given how things went for Penn State last week and how well Ohio State performed against a pretty fat spread, I’m inclined to say they’ll cover on the road, too. Particularly when you consider that Urban Meyer, a fellow who knows a thing or two about playing in Happy Valley, says the White Out is good for 7-10 points for the home team… and they won’t have it this time.

But on the other hand I’m a data guy, and SP+ has this one as just a 10-point Buckeye advantage this week. Unbeaten Ohio State remains the No. 1 team in the country in Bill Connelly’s data-driven rankings, and currently has the Buckeyes a double-digit favorite over every team on its schedule one game into the season.

So with all the confidence in the world in the Buckeye offense but bearing in mind that the Penn State defense held the Hoosiers to just 211 yards of offense… I’m going to say Ohio State covers the 13.5-point spread and rides home victorious, 42-28. Garrett Wilson follows up an incredible performance against Nebraska with another one as he and Fields make magic all over an all-but-empty Beaver Stadium. 

Dan: I could really see any outcome from Penn State winning a close game to Ohio State winning a blowout on Saturday – the Nittany Lions winning big is the only result that would shock me – but I'm going to predict, though I'm not nearly confident enough to bet on it, that Ohio State just barely covers and wins this game 38-24. For an impact player, I'll predict that Jameson Williams breaks out and puts his big-play ability on display after a quiet season opener.

Andrew: I’ve got Ohio State covering by a score of 43-23. My favorite thing while watching PSU last weekend was seeing Lamont Wade getting burnt, the IU receivers dropping the ball, and then Wade acting like he had actually done something to prevent the big play. I’ll go with Jameson Williams as the impact player. I can see him toasting the PSU secondary once or twice after his quiet showing against Nebraska. I think Julian Fleming gets his first touchdown as well.

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