Ohio State’s blown every Big Ten opponent out of the water thus far, but the Week 9 waves could get choppy as the Buckeyes head back on the road this weekend.
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Penn State waits in the wings to host Ohio State in Happy Valley for the first time in two years, and James Franklin has a 6-1 Nittany Lion team that ranks 13th in the nation, with its lone loss coming against No. 4 Michigan.
Ohio State holds a five-game win streak in the all-time series against Penn State, but the Nittany Lions may be the toughest test the Buckeyes have had to date in 2022. Here are five things to know about Ohio State’s Big Ten East adversary in preparation for Saturday’s noon kickoff at Beaver Stadium.
Best OSU opponent so far
Notre Dame might have held a top-five ranking to start the year, but three subsequent losses quickly proved that the Fighting Irish are not worthy of a number next to their name. That means when Ohio State and Penn State kick off this weekend, the Nittany Lions will be the only team the Buckeyes have taken on so far that is currently in the AP Top 25.
Penn State’s 6-1 start to the season and most recent 45-17 blowout over Minnesota have the Nittany Lions positioned at No. 13 in the country. Given that Ohio State has only played Wisconsin (4-4), Rutgers (4-3), Michigan State (3-4) and Iowa (3-4), Penn State represents are marked uptick in competition.
Especially when you factor in the Nittany Lions’ home-field advantage, even if Saturday won’t be a White Out atmosphere at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State’s major statistical rankings in the FBS won’t blow you away, with only the Nittany Lions’ scoring defense (18.9 points per game) ranking in the top 20 around the country. But the numbers show Penn State is solid in most areas and perhaps more well-rounded than most teams Ohio State has faced this season.
The Penn State offense is top-50 in scoring (39th at 33.4 ppg), total (49th at 423.6 ypg) and rushing offense (48th at 178.4 ypg), and top-65 on defense in those same categories. Beyond Penn State’s No. 20 ranked scoring defense, the Nittany Lions’ average allowance of 140.3 yards per game on the ground ranks 62nd in the nation, and its 373.1 total yards allowed per game are 63rd.
Blown out in only ranked matchup
Aside from one game this season, Penn State has enjoyed nothing but victory, albeit to varying degrees. But the one game the Nittany Lions dropped is also their only game against a ranked opponent so far, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Michigan blew the Nittany Lions out 41-17 in Ann Arbor, a game in which Penn State entered as just a seven-point underdog. Penn State held a one-point lead early in the second half but then gave up 25 unanswered points to finish with a lopsided loss.
The Wolverines racked up a whopping 418 yards and five touchdowns on the ground as Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum ran wild for Michigan, and Penn State mustered just 157 yards through the air between Sean Clifford and Drew Allar at quarterback.
Penn State’s most impressive nonconference win was a 41-12 blowout over unranked Auburn, which dropped three of its next four games after the loss to the Nittany Lions. Penn State has survived a couple of close calls in Big Ten play, with just a four-point win over Purdue to open the season and an uninspiring 17-7 win against a 1-6 Northwestern team.
The Nittany Lions may be Ohio State’s toughest test to date, but the same can be said on the other side as well, and we saw how things turned out on the one occasion Penn State played a comparable opponent to the Buckeyes.
Clifford coming off a season-best effort
Sean Clifford is a sixth-year college football veteran with a wealth of experience, 40 starts and a tenured history under center for the Nittany Lions. Drew Allar is a five-star freshman who many believe has more talent and a higher ceiling than Clifford ever could.
After a poor performance against Michigan that ended with Clifford leaving the game with a shoulder injury, it looked like the Allar era might begin in earnest in Penn State’s Week 8 matchup with Minnesota. Instead, Clifford not only played but put forth his best effort of the season.
Clifford passed for a season-high 295 yards, completed a season-high 74.2% of his passes and tied a season-best four touchdowns through the air. Even with an interception, Clifford’s 190.3 passer rating was his best all year by far. When it looked like he might be losing ground on the starting job, Clifford appeared to reaffirm himself as QB1 heading into Penn State’s matchup with the Buckeyes.
Clifford’s already had three cracks at Ohio State as the Penn State starter, and each time he’s come up short. He’s been particularly effective in the past two matchups, combining to throw for 642 yards and four scores against Ohio State in 2020 and ‘21, but both games still ended in Buckeye victories.
It seems clear Clifford will get his fourth chance to beat the Bucks this weekend, although oddsmakers certainly won’t favor him to do so. Either way, expect to see Allar getting some snaps on Saturday, as he’s attempted a pass in all but one game thus far for Penn State.
Several Standout DBs
Statistically speaking, the weakest part of Penn State’s defense is its ability to stop the pass. The Nittany Lions rank just 79th in the nation with an average allowance of 232.9 yards per game. That figure also ranks ninth in the Big Ten.
In terms of personnel, though, the Nittany Lions have some big-time playmakers in the secondary.
Only three players in the FBS have more pass breakups than junior corner Joey Porter Jr., who has 11 thus far. But he’s not even the best corner on the team, per Pro Football Focus, which gives the Nittany Lions’ Kalen King the sixth-highest defensive grade in the country at his position.
At safety, Ji’Ayir Brown leads the Nittany Lions with 41 tackles and three interceptions and has racked up 92 yards on INT returns this season. Brown is also tied for second on the roster with 3.5 tackles for loss and has a sack and a forced fumble on his résumé this season.
Still, Purdue is the only pass offense Penn State has played that puts up more average yards than Ohio State, and the Boilermakers put up 365 yards on the Nittany Lion secondary in their Week 1 matchup.
Only a 7-pt avg. margin of defeat in last five against OSU
We’re a few years removed from the stretch in which three straight Ohio State-Penn State matchups (2016-18) were decided by a total of five points. In fact, the Buckeyes’ current five-game win streak against the Nittany Lions is the longest in the all-time series.
But even in the last three editions of the matchup, Ohio State has failed to beat Penn State by more than 13 points. The Buckeyes have outscored the Nittany Lions 165-130 since the latter’s last win in the series and with just a seven-point margin of victory in those contests.
Last year’s 33-24 Buckeye win wasn’t particularly memorable, save perhaps Jerron Cage’s 57-yard scoop-and-score touchdown, but it was one of just two wins all season in which Ohio State defeated a Big Ten opponent by a single-digit margin.
Everybody loves a big man TD— ESPN (@espn) October 31, 2021
Scoop-and-score gives the Bucks six more! pic.twitter.com/nqd6WVAka9
Penn State has also held Ohio State well below its season average in points per game in all five matchups, a stat that suggests the Buckeyes won’t approach the 49.6 points their offense is averaging this season when they head to Happy Valley this weekend.