In just its second game of 2020, Ohio State just might face its toughest test of the regular season on Saturday night.
Yes, Penn State lost its season opener against Indiana, but the Nittany Lions are still arguably the Big Ten’s most talented team other than the Buckeyes. No Big Ten team has been more consistently competitive with Ohio State in recent years than Penn State, who beat the Buckeyes after two early-season losses in 2016 – in a game that ultimately decided that year’s Big Ten East race – and lost by only one point in both 2017 and 2018 before losing by 11 points last year.
|PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
7:30 P.M. – SATURDAY, OCT. 31
STATE COLLEGE, PA.
And compared to the other three teams Ohio State will play away from home during its eight-game, conference-only regular season – Maryland, Illinois and Michigan State – Saturday’s trip to Beaver Stadium, where Penn State is 26-2 since 2016, stands out as by far the Buckeyes’ most intimidating road test.
That road trip isn’t as intimidating as it would be under normal circumstances thanks to the Big Ten’s decision not to allow fans to attend games this season, which will make for a far quieter and less hostile Beaver Stadium on Saturday. But it’s still the first time the Buckeyes have hit the road this season, in a year where COVID-19 has changed everything, and they know they’re likely in for a bigger challenge than they faced last week in their 52-17 home win over Nebraska.
“You gotta earn wins against these guys, so it’s going to be one of those games where we gotta start from the beginning, take care of the football, play really strong, get the game into the fourth quarter and win it in the fourth quarter,” Ryan Day said this week.
Major Implications for Both Teams
The winner of the Ohio State/Penn State has gone on to win the Big Ten for each of the past four seasons, and in three of those four seasons, this game made the difference between which team finished ahead of the other to win the Big Ten East. So it’s no exaggeration, at least as far as the conference championship race is concerned, to say this could end up being the most pivotal game of the Big Ten’s regular season.
It’s too early in the season to say right now whether the winner of this game will end up winning the Big Ten East this year, but what is known is that Penn State’s chances of contending for a conference title this year will be slim to none if it loses on Saturday. After already losing one game, a second loss to a divisional opponent would almost certainly end its chances of winning the Big Ten East.
Ohio State can’t afford to lose this game either, though, if it wants to ensure it will have a chance to compete for a fourth straight Big Ten championship and earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. A loss to Penn State wouldn’t necessarily end Ohio State’s chances of achieving either goal, but it would leave the Buckeyes banking on the Nittany Lions losing another game and hoping the rest of their resume would be enough to get them in the CFP, which it might not be in a year that they’re likely to play only two or three regular-season games against ranked opponents.
Given what happened to Penn State last week, Ohio State knows it will be facing a motivated Nittany Lions team on Saturday. But Day is confident his team will respond to the pressure as it plays in primetime for the first time this year.
“This is why you come to Ohio State … games like this,” Day said. “So we gotta go, gotta prepare, gotta go play really, really hard.”
No White Out = Easier Road Test?
If this was a normal year, we’d be talking about Ohio State preparing to play in one of the most raucous environments in college football. Alas, it’s 2020, so the Beaver Stadium crowd that is typically full of rowdy Penn State fans wearing white for a home game against the Buckeyes will be limited to just a few hundred family guests of each team’s players and coaches.
That could nullify the home-field advantage that has helped Penn State be so successful in its own stadium in recent years. But going on the road still presents new variables that Ohio State hasn’t had to deal with yet this season, such as carefully building a travel roster to account for the possibility of pregame positive COVID-19 tests and adapting to travel routines that have been tweaked from past seasons, so the Buckeyes have to make sure they don’t allow any of that to distract them.
“No matter what happens, it’s hard to win at Happy Valley,” Day said. “We’ve learned that before. So we’ll work hard to make sure that plan is organized to run smoothly, and the players are able to focus on the game.”
Will Defense, Running Game Be Up to the Task?
Even though Ohio State won its season opener by 35 points, there was plenty to nitpick from the Buckeyes’ convincing victory – in particular, the poor start to the game for the Buckeyes’ defense, its struggles to contain Nebraska’s quarterback runs and a mediocre first game for running backs Master Teague and Trey Sermon.
None of that came close to impacting the outcome of Saturday’s game, as Justin Fields accounted for 330 total yards in a stellar start to the season and Ohio State ultimately scored 38 of the game’s final 41 points, but against a better Penn State team, the Buckeyes could be at more risk if their defense is shaky or if they aren’t able to grind out tough yards on the ground.
Some growing pains are to be expected in the season opener, especially when a team hasn’t played in 10 months and is starting its season with a conference game. Penn State is capable of exploiting Ohio State’s weaknesses, though, if the Buckeyes don’t improve in those areas from Week 1 to Week 2.
“We’ve gotta do a great job this week of showing improvement in all different areas, and that’s where you can really find out where you’re at, going on the road this week to a really difficult place to win,” Day said.
Keep an Eye on These Guys
QB Sean Clifford
While Nebraska quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey combined to run for 164 yards against Ohio State’s defense last week, Clifford ran for a career-high 119 yards on 17 carries, including a 35-yard touchdown. He had never run for more than 57 yards in a game before Saturday, and had zero rushing yards against Ohio State last year, but he proved last week that the Buckeyes are going to need to take his ability to use his legs seriously.
Clifford wasn’t effective passing the ball against Ohio State last year either, throwing for just 71 yards on 10 completions and 17 attempts, but he’s been mostly effective passing the ball as Penn State’s starting quarterback otherwise, which could make this week a tougher test for Ohio State’s still mostly unproven secondary.
|JOEY PORTER JR.
“I think the big thing there is Clifford really has experience now,” Day said of the second-year starting quarterback. “He has some experience in the league, he’s won some big games. I think he’s accurate throwing the ball. He’s very competitive. I also think he runs the ball maybe better than when you first look at him. He had the big run last week, he makes guys miss, I think he’s kind of sneaky athletic. And they do a lot of good things running the quarterback. So I think he’s a big challenge.”
TE Pat Freiermuth
Ohio State’s defense looked vulnerable against Nebraska’s tight ends last week, too, and now, the Buckeyes face a matchup with a tight end who earned preseason All-American honors from the Associated Press.
A 6-foot-5, 258-pound tight end who Penn State uses as both an in-line tight end and flexed out as a receiver, Freiermuth is a potential future first-round NFL draft pick who could create matchup problems for Ohio State’s defense. The Buckeyes held him to only 40 yards on six catches in last year’s game, in which Pete Werner was manned up with him for most of the game, but it’s uncertain whether he’ll be in that role this year now that he’s moved to inside linebacker.
One way or another, having a good game plan to keep Freiermuth in check will be key to Ohio State’s defensive success in State College.
“He’s a matchup issue on first and second and third down,” Day said of Freiermuth. “Whether it’s the run game, he’s strong and powerful, but he’s also a matchup in the pass game. Man-to-man, he can get big and go get jump balls, he can body you up.
“You just gotta make sure that you’re putting the right guys in the right position to be successful. Pete’s done a decent job there, so we’ve looked at a lot of different things. We’ll figure out at the end of the week what’s the best way to attack them and defend them.”
DE Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh
Ohio State’s pass protection, especially offensive tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, will be put to the test this week against Toney and Oweh, who give Penn State one of the Big Ten’s best pass-rushing tandems at defensive end.
Toney, a second-team All-Big Ten honoree in 2019, had two sacks in the Nittany Lions’ season opener against Indiana. Oweh, who was also recruited by Ohio State out of high school and is a spectacular athlete who has reportedly run a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, was graded by Pro Football Focus as the Big Ten’s best defender last week.
Preventing them from getting free rushes at Fields will certainly be a point of emphasis for the Buckeyes’ offensive line this week.
“They’re both fast and quick off the ball,” Day said. “They really ran the edge on the guys last week, and then had a good counter move inside. So they’re as good as we’ve seen. And so we’ve gotta do a great job of getting our hands on them early.
“Those guys have been really coming hard off of the edges, and we gotta do a good job of protecting the quarterback and giving him time, because when he has time, as we’ve seen, he can really do some good things. But we’ve gotta give him that time.”
Game Week Talk
“I wasn’t really going there for the experience. My plan always is going there to win, to beat Penn State, so whether that’s with fans or without fans, we have a job and I think our No. 1 goal is to go out there and beat Penn State.”– Justin Fields on no White Out
Once a Penn State commit who made that decision after the Nittany Lions’ White Out win over Ohio State in 2016, Fields will miss out on what would have been his one opportunity to play in front of a White Out crowd on Saturday. He’s not too concerned about that, though, because he was going to be focused on leading the Buckeyes to a victory regardless.
“I’m not here to hang with Ohio State, I’m here to beat Ohio State. I wouldn’t have came here if I didn’t have that mentality.”– Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford
Like Fields, Clifford also has sights set on leading his team to victory on Saturday even though the Nittany Lions are underdogs. The Cincinnati native is still seeking his first win against Ohio State as a Nittany Lion, as Penn State has gone 0-3 against the Buckeyes since his arrival on campus in 2017.
“It’s not a rivalry. We’re not Michigan. … I think that this is two good football teams who are playing each other, and that’s it.”– Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton
When Shelton, a Columbus native, was asked this week what the Ohio State/Penn State rivalry meant to him, he didn’t take the bait. While the Buckeyes’ annual game against the Nittany Lions is an anticipated game every year, Ohio State fans are quick to remind that Penn State is “not our rival,” and Shelton respects that.
- Penn State will be without its top two running backs for Saturday’s game – and possibly both for the remainder of the year – as Journey Brown is currently sidelined by an undisclosed medical condition while Noah Cain suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Indiana. Devyn Ford, who had 69 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries against Indiana, is the Nittany Lions’ new starting running back.
- Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave is available to play at Penn State after leaving the Nebraska game with an injury. Ryan Day said Thursday that Olave has “had a good, strong week of practice.”
- Four of Penn State’s starting offensive linemen (Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda, Michal Menet and Will Fries) are returning starters from last season.
- ESPN’s College GameDay will broadcast from Beaver Stadium from 9 a.m. to noon, marking the fourth straight year GameDay has aired from the site of the Ohio State-Penn State game.
- Ohio State’s roster includes two players from Pennsylvania (Julian Fleming and Marcus Hooker), while Penn State has six players from Ohio including Clifford, Shelton, left guard Mike Miranda and long snapper Chris Stoll.
- Ohio State is 7-1 against Penn State since 2012. With a win on Saturday, Ohio State would achieve four straight wins against Penn State for the second time in that span; before 2012-15, the Buckeyes had never previously won more than three straight games against the Nittany Lions.
How It Plays Out
Line: Ohio State -12, O/U 64.0
Ohio State is favored to win this game by more points than any of the past four games in this series have been decided by, which speaks to how good the Buckeyes are believed to be this year and that the Nittany Lions appear to be a solid tier below them, especially after they lost their first game of the season.
If everything clicks for the Buckeyes on Saturday, they’re capable of winning big, especially since Penn State won’t be able to feed off the usual energy it would draw from its home crowd.
However, nothing should be assumed in this matchup. Given how competitive the annual tilts between these two teams have been in recent years, Ohio State needs to be prepared for a 60-minute dogfight, and the Nittany Lions are capable of pulling the upset if the Buckeyes don’t play their best football or make costly mistakes.
While we believe Ohio State has a chance to cover the spread, all that should really matter to the Buckeyes and their fans in this one is just coming home from Happy Valley with a win.
|Eleven Warriors Staff Prediction