Preview: Ohio State Heads to Penn State for Biggest Road Test of Season

By Dan Hope on October 28, 2022 at 8:35 am
Zach Harrison vs. Sean Clifford

On the final weekend of October, Ohio State will play just its second road game of the season and face only its second ranked opponent of the season.

The Buckeyes played their first game of the year against a ranked opponent when they faced then-fifth-ranked Notre Dame in their season opener and handled their first road game of the year with ease earlier this month when they beat Michigan State 49-20. Going off of the current rankings, however, Ohio State will face its biggest test of the season to date when it plays Penn State on Saturday.

6-1 (3-1 B1G)


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Penn State is ranked 13th in both major polls whereas none of Ohio State’s first seven opponents are currently ranked in the top 25 of either poll. And the Nittany Lions have a reputation for playing Ohio State tough, as each of the last six games between the two teams has been decided by 13 points or fewer, though Penn State hasn’t actually beaten the Buckeyes since 2016.

That was the Buckeyes’ second-most recent trip to Penn State in which they played in front of fans, as their most recent game in State College came in a nearly empty Beaver Stadium during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Playing in front of a packed crowd at Penn State, one of the loudest and most hostile environments in the Big Ten, will be a new experience for almost all of Ohio State’s players.

Ohio State has prepared for that challenge by playing loud crowd noise over the speakers in practice this week to simulate what the Buckeyes will have to deal with when they have the ball Saturday afternoon. At the same time, the Buckeyes have tried to keep their preparation this week consistent with what’s worked for them through their first seven games of the season.

“If you psych yourself up, you turn it into something that it isn't,” Ohio State left guard Donovan Jackson said. “They're a very, very talented team, very aggressive team. But at the end of the day, you just got to play Ohio State football.”

The Headlines

Best Team Ohio State Has Played

By the numbers, Penn State will be the best team plays in the first two months of the season.

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The Nittany Lions have a better record (6-1) than any team Ohio State has faced so far, and they’re ranked 14th – 10 spots higher than Wisconsin – in ESPN’s SP+ rankings, a predictive measure of team efficiency. Add in the home-field advantage Penn State will have, and the fact that Michigan is the only other currently-ranked team on Ohio State’s regular-season schedule, and this week’s game should be Ohio State’s biggest test of the season to date and until Nov. 26.

Even so, Ohio State is favored to win Saturday’s game by 15.5 points. Penn State lost 41-17 to Michigan in its only game against a ranked opponent so far this year, so it’s fair to question how capable the Nittany Lions really are of upsetting the second-ranked Buckeyes.

That said, the Nittany Lions have the talent to make life more difficult than it’s been for Ohio State on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Ryan Day says their combination of Sean Clifford at quarterback and a talented wide receiver corps will be “the biggest challenge” Ohio State’s pass defense has faced so far. Defensively, Penn State has held five of its last six opponents to 17 points or fewer and has held teams to an average of only six passing yards per attempt, which ranks 11th in the country.

“We're gonna get challenged across the board,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “We can't back away from a challenge, but we just got to be very aggressive but very smart and calculated as we go.”

A Chance for the Run Game to Get Back on Track

Although Ohio State scored 54 points against Iowa, the most ever allowed by a Kirk Ferentz-coached Iowa team, the Buckeyes had their worst day of the season running the ball against the Hawkeyes as they ran for only 66 yards – their second-fewest in any game dating back to the start of the 2012 season – on 2.2 yards per attempt. 

Given that, working through the kinks in the run game has been a big point of emphasis for Ohio State during this week’s preparations, though Jackson says that’s been a point of emphasis for the Buckeyes every week.

“I feel like we just didn't execute the way we wanted to. There are some things that we felt like we just didn't play the way that we should,” Jackson said. “So we're just trying to get back to what we did before.”

Even with the struggles against the Hawkeyes, Ohio State still ranks 13th in the FBS in rushing yards per attempt (5.56) and 21st in rushing yards per game (204.9). And this week’s game could be a prime opportunity for the Buckeyes to get back on track. Penn State allowed a whopping 418 rushing yards on 7.6 yards per attempt against Michigan, though the Nittany Lions believe they’ll be better prepared to stop the run this week.

“It's just about us being ourselves,” said Penn State linebacker Curtis Jacobs. “We got away from that at times this season, and I feel like if we just be ourselves and be dominant, we can play with anybody in the country.”

JSN’s Status In Doubt Again

While Ryan Day said Tuesday “the plan” was for Jaxon Smith-Njigba to be available to play against Penn State this week, he gave no such affirmation on Thursday, when he responded to a question about Smith-Njigba by saying he would not be providing any injury updates, deferring to the team’s status report that will be released at 9 a.m. Saturday.

C.J. Stroud’s response when asked Wednesday about Smith-Njigba’s status also cast doubt on the receiver’s availability this week, as Stroud said “I don't want to really disclose his personal information or how he feels, but I could imagine that it's not good.”

After already missing four games this season with a hamstring injury, Smith-Njigba limped off the field on what would be his final play of last weekend’s game against Iowa, and he was not seen coming off of the practice field with the rest of the Buckeyes before player interviews on Wednesday. As such, it appears the Buckeyes could be without Smith-Njigba’s services once again in Happy Valley.

The Buckeyes have gotten along just fine without him, averaging 49.6 points and 517.4 yards per game even though the player who was expected to be the best wide receiver in college football this season hasn’t been fully healthy all year. Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming have all stepped up with elite play in his absence, and Harrison and Fleming are both Pennsylvania natives who could have extra motivation to have big games in their home state on Saturday. Still, the Buckeyes would certainly like to have Smith-Njigba available for a game of this magnitude, especially considering he was their leading receiver against Penn State a year ago.

Keep An Eye on These Guys

RB Nicholas Singleton

Ranked as the No. 1 running back in the recruiting class of 2022, Singleton has made an immediate impact for Penn State as a true freshman. The explosive runner leads the Nittany Lions with 561 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 82 carries.

Possessing elite speed at 6-foot and 219 pounds, Singleton leads all FBS players with five runs of 40-plus yards this season. If the Buckeyes can keep him contained between the tackles, they’ll have a chance to shut him down – he had only 19 yards on six carries against Michigan – but keeping him from getting into open space where he can make big plays will need to be a priority for Ohio State’s defense.

Singleton isn’t the only freshman running back Ohio State will need to be aware of, as Kaytron Allen – who, like Singleton, was also recruited by the Buckeyes before ending up at Penn State – has also been productive in rotation with Singleton, gaining 396 yards and four touchdowns on 78 carries.

WRs Mitchell Tinsley and Parker Washington

Along with having one of the Big Ten’s top running back tandems in Singleton and Allen, Penn State also has one of the conference’s most talented wide receiver pairings in Tinsley and Washington.

Together, they’ve combined for 58 catches, 728 yards and five touchdowns this season. While those numbers don’t jump off the page compared to those put up by Egbuka and Harrison this season, Washington and Tinsley are both gifted talents who demonstrate the ability to make big plays in the passing game – and they’re coming off one of their best games in the season in which they combined for 128 yards and two touchdowns in Penn State’s 45-17 win over Minnesota.

Ohio State’s cornerbacks have had some issues with giving up big plays in jump-ball situations, and Tinsley and Washington might be the best duo of wideouts the Buckeyes have faced all year. And they’ll be going into Saturday’s game with confidence they can make plays, which will be crucial to Penn State’s chances of winning.

“(Ohio State’s secondary is) definitely talented for sure, but I feel like it’s no different than what we see each and every day at practice,” said Tinsley, who ranked in the top 10 nationally in receiving yards (1,402) and receiving touchdowns (14) at Western Kentucky in 2021 before transferring to Penn State this offseason. “So we're prepared and we're ready to go make plays when we get our opportunity.”

CB Joey Porter Jr.

While Ohio State’s cornerbacks vs. Penn State’s wide receivers will be an important matchup in the game, Ohio State’s wide receivers vs. Penn State’s cornerbacks may be an even better matchup to watch. Both sides of that matchup feature potential future first-round NFL draft picks, as the Nittany Lions’ secondary is led by one of the nation’s best cornerbacks in Joey Porter Jr.

The son of former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, Porter Jr. has prototypical size and speed for a cornerback at 6-foot-2 and 194 pounds. He also has excellent ball skills as evidenced by his 11 pass breakups, which are tied for the second-most nationally, and he certainly has the attention of the quarterback who will be trying to complete passes against him this weekend.

“He's a really good player, I think the best DB in college football other than the guys we have on my team,” Stroud said.

A comment like that might make you think Ohio State will simply try to throw away from Porter on Saturday, but Porter isn’t the only standout in Penn State’s secondary. Fellow cornerback Kalen King is currently graded by Pro Football Focus as the third-best cornerback in the Power 5 this season, while Ji’Ayir Brown is a rangy playmaker who has tallied 115 tackles, nine interceptions and two forced fumbles since the start of last season.

“You can't just cross the guy off and not challenge the guy, but also you got to be smart,” Wilson said. “They're really good outside at corners, so our guys are gonna have to work hard to get open and do what it takes to win the routes.”

Game Week Talk

“He's leading the Heisman race for a reason. A talented guy that we have a ton of respect for.”– James Franklin on C.J. Stroud

Penn State’s coaches had nothing but praise for Ohio State’s quarterback this week. Both Franklin and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith noted Stroud’s ability to throw from outside the pocket, with Smith saying “all the guy does is win and deliver strikes.”

“Their ability to create explosive plays is one of the best in the country, if not the best in the country. So we got to definitely come ready to play on Saturday.”– Curtis Jacobs on Ohio State’s offense

Ohio State ranks in the top five nationally in plays from scrimmage of more than 30 yards (25) and more than 40 yards (14), and Penn State’s top linebacker said that’s what’s caught his attention most about the Buckeyes’ offense.

“As a unit, they're extremely aggressive … they offer a lot of challenging looks.”– Sean Clifford on Ohio State’s defense

Clifford has already played against Ohio State three times, but he said the Buckeyes’ defense looks different this year under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles than it had in years past.

“I think when you look at the schedule every year and you try to map out your road to Indianapolis, certainly a big part of it is beating Penn State.”– Ryan Day on the importance of this week’s game

Until Michigan won the Big Ten last year, the winner of the Ohio State/Penn State game won the Big Ten five years in a row, so Day isn’t exaggerating how important this weekend’s game is to the Buckeyes’ goal of winning a conference championship. If the Buckeyes win in Happy Valley, Ohio State and Michigan will be two games ahead of the rest of the Big Ten East. If Penn State upsets Ohio State, however, the Nittany Lions would have a tiebreaker over the Buckeyes and a shot at winning the Big Ten East if Michigan loses to Ohio State or any other team.

Projected Starters
Ohio State Pos Penn State

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  • Ohio State has a 23-14 all-time record against Penn State. The series was tied 13-13 in 2011, but the Buckeyes have gone 9-1 against the Nittany Lions over the past 10 years.
  • Penn State’s roster includes six players from Ohio: quarterbacks Sean Clifford (Cincinnati) and Drew Allar (Medina), wide receivers Liam Clifford (Maineville) and Kaden Saunders (Columbus), center Juice Scruggs (Ashtabula) and long snapper Chris Stoll (Westerville).
  • Marvin Harrison Jr. (Philadelphia) and Julian Fleming (Catawissa) are Ohio State’s only players from Pennsylvania, though backup quarterback Kyle McCord also played high school football in Pennsylvania, alongside Harrison at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s Prep.
  • Ohio State has scored at least 20 points in each of its last 68 consecutive games. If the Buckeyes score at least 20 points against Penn State, they will tie the FBS record of 69 consecutive 20-point games, previously set by Oklahoma from 2016-21.
  • This year’s game will be Ohio State’s first road game at Penn State since 2009 that is neither a night game nor a “White Out.” Penn State will instead hold a “Stripe Out,” asking fans in alternating sections to wear either white or blue.
  • Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff pregame show will broadcast on location from an Ohio State game for the second week in a row, with television coverage beginning at 10 a.m.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -15.5, O/U 61

To cover the spread against Penn State this year, Ohio State will need to outscore Penn State by more points than it has any of its last six games against the Nittany Lions. Yet even though the Buckeyes haven’t beaten Penn State by more than 13 points since their 38-10 win over the Nittany Lions in 2015, every member of the Eleven Warriors expects OSU to win by at least 14 this year.

Penn State is the most complete team Ohio State has faced all season, so a Buckeyes victory shouldn’t be expected to come as easily this week as it has in their last six games this year, all of which they’ve won by at least 29 points. The Nittany Lions’ offense is the best Ohio State has faced so far this year, and their defense has allowed fewer points per game than any of Ohio State’s first seven opponents except Iowa.

Ohio State’s 54-point outing against Iowa last week, though, showed how hard it is for any defense to keep the Buckeyes from putting up a big number – even if Iowa’s six turnovers gave Ohio State’s offense a big assist last week. And while Penn State’s offense will be a step up in competition for the Buckeyes’ defense, it’s nothing Jim Knowles’ unit shouldn’t be able to handle with how well Ohio State has been playing on that side of the ball.

Michigan beat Penn State by 24 points in a game that was even more lopsided than the final score indicated, so it’s not hard to envision the Buckeyes also beating the Nittany Lions by a large margin. This game being played in University Park rather than Ann Arbor, though, is reason to believe the Nittany Lions might make their second big game of the season at least a little more competitive than their first.

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