Five Things to Know About Penn State Before Saturday's Top-20 Matchup With Ohio State

By Griffin Strom on October 25, 2021 at 10:10 am
Sean Clifford
© Dan Rainville via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Ohio State will face its stiffest task and its first ranked opponent since its loss to Oregon in Week 2 when Penn State comes to Columbus on Saturday.

5-2 (2-2 B1G)

7:30 P.M. – SATURDAY, OCT. 30


A considerable amount of wind was taken out of what could have been a top-10 matchup when then-No. 7 Penn State lost its second game in a row this past weekend, but the Nittany Lions will remain an opportunity for the Buckeyes to notch their first ranked win of the season.

Despite their two-game skid, James Franklin and company will enter Columbus ranked No. 20 in the AP Top 25, and the Nittany Lions still possess one of the country’s top defenses by more than one measure.

For more on Penn State before it vies to end a four-game losing streak against Ohio State this weekend, here’s five things to know about the Nittany Lions.

Coming off 9OT loss to Illinois

You read that right, Penn State-Illinois went into nine overtimes Saturday in a painstaking 20-18 affair chock full of offensive ineptitude, and the Nittany Lions have now lost two games in a row after starting the season 5-0.

Franklin's squad climbed as high as No. 4 in the country before their meeting with then-No. 3 Iowa on Oct. 9, but an injury to starting quarterback Sean Clifford did Penn State no favors as it came up short in a 23-20 loss. The Nittany Lions had a bye week to recharge, but despite being a 24-point favorite against lowly Illinois, Penn State suffered another setback this weekend, and this one was far less excusable.

The Fighting Illini entered the game just 2-5 on the season, with Bret Bielema all but writing the season off entirely in the media due to his roster. But Penn State could only muster one touchdown in regulation, sending a 10-10 game into overtime, and the offensive struggles continued on both sides thereafter. 

Neither team scored a touchdown in overtime, and from the third overtime period through the seventh, Penn State and Illinois failed to score at all. In the end, Illinois managed to punch in two straight two-point conversions to get the win, resulting in a rather embarrassing loss for the Nittany Lion program.

Best defense Buckeyes have faced

Ryan Day called Penn State the “biggest challenge of the season” following Ohio State’s win this weekend, and in terms of the defense the Buckeyes will face, that is true to this point in the year.

Penn State ranks sixth-best in the country with a scoring defense that has allowed just 14.7 points per game. The 23 points Iowa mustered against the Nittany Lions were the most any team has scored on them all season, with four of their seven opponents scoring 17 points or less.

The Nittany Lions possess the No. 26 total defense in America, giving up 324.4 yards per game, and its pass defense ranks even higher. Allowing just 178 yards through the air this season, Penn State is No. 15 in the country. In fact, Illinois quarterback Artur Sitkowski managed to complete just eight of his 19 pass attempts against Penn State for a grand total of 38 yards on Saturday.

Five different Nittany Lions have at least five pass breakups this season, and six have made at least one interception so far. Veteran safeties Ji’ayir Brown and Jaquan Brisker have five of the team’s nine picks on the year in the Penn State secondary.

Temple transfer defensive end Arnold Ebiketie has made a big impact for the Nittany Lions in his first year with the program, leading the team with 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss through seven games.

Gave up 357 rushing yards last week

Many of Penn State’s defensive metrics are impressive, but its run defense took a major hit this past Saturday when Illinois had a field day handing the ball off against the Nittany Lions.

The Fighting Illini had two 100-yard rushers on the day and finished with 357 yards total in the run game during the win. Chase Brown ran for 223 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries, while Josh McCray had a big day of his own with 142 yards on 24 carries.

Penn State had only allowed two 100-yard rushers for the season prior to its matchup with Illinois, but the Buckeyes undoubtedly possess more talent on paper than what Illinois brought to the table.

TreVeyon Henderson remains college football’s leader in yards per carry, averaging 8.8 a pop as he continues to rack up chunk gains and touchdowns on limited touches this season.

Familiar faces in the passing game

The Buckeyes will face some familiar names in the Penn State pass attack, not least of which being veteran quarterback Sean Clifford.

Sean Clifford

Clifford got off to a rock-solid start to his fifth year with the Nittany Lions, completing nearly 72 percent of his passes with an average of 289.5 passing yards per game through the first four Penn State contests. Since then, though, the sailing has not been quite so smooth.

Clifford has not thrown for 200 yards since Sept. 25 against Villanova, and he’s averaging just 163 yards per game in the past three. Clifford has thrown four touchdowns and three interceptions in that stretch, and was knocked out of the Iowa loss with an injury.

The Cincinnati native returned against Illinois, but didn’t exactly wow audiences with his performance.

Clifford will still have star wide receiver Jahan Dotson to throw to against the Buckeyes, and after his 144-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Ohio State game last year, fans will not soon forget that name. Dotson has 49 catches for 563 yards and six scores this season, and remains dangerous despite Penn State’s ho-hum offensive showings as of late.

Offensive struggles

The Nittany Lion offense has not matched the caliber of its defense this season, and that may be the chief reason for Penn State’s current two-game losing streak.

Clifford’s early success has Penn State nestled in at a middle-of-the-pack 253.6 yards per game through the air, good for No. 47 in the country, but the rest of the Nittany Lions’ offensive statistics place them considerably lower on the totem pole.

Penn State’s average of 26.9 points per game ranks No. 79 in the nation, and its average of 372.4 yards of total offense is No. 86. Running the ball has been perhaps the weakest point of the Penn State attack, as its 118.9 yards per game on the ground is down at No. 100 in the country so far this season.

Noah Cain, the Nittany Lions’ leading rusher this season, has just 245 yards and an average of 3.1 yards per carry. The team in general averages just 3.5 yards per attempt, and has an underwhelming total of eight rushing touchdowns on the year. Second-year back Keyvone Lee has had more success than Cain, averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 45 carries, but even he has struggled mightily to find open space in the past couple games.

Meanwhile, Ohio State hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown since Week 2, and limited Indiana to 48 yards on 37 carries on Saturday.

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