COLUMBUS — No. 2 Ohio State has breezed through its first 10 games, winning by an average margin of nearly 42 points, but the cupcakes are finished as the No. 8 Penn State Nittany Lions come to Columbus Saturday.
“This is a talent-equated game,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said of Penn State Tuesday. “We all know we have been in some games that we have had more talent than some of the other teams we have played. This is a team that talent equates.”
Implications couldn’t be much higher as a Big Ten East division title and a spot in the Big Ten Championship game are on the line for both teams, as is likely the fate of each team’s College Football Playoff hopes.
The last three meetings between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have been nothing short of classics decided by a combined five points, and while the Buckeyes have opened up as 18-point favorites, recent history suggests another thriller should be expected inside Ohio Stadium Saturday.
Penn State head coach James Franklin is looking for just his second win against Ohio State since taking over in State College in 2014, and if he is to find it, here is a look at the personnel that will be responsible for the upset.
Despite the loss of several key players from last year, including quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders, the Penn State offense has not missed a beat in 2019. In fact, the unit has been even better, statistically, led by sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford.
Penn State ranks 15th nationally in scoring offense, averaging just under 37 yards per game. Clifford, a Cincinnati native, has largely been responsible for their success, throwing for 2,450 yards and 22 touchdowns to six interceptions this season.
However, while he continues to hit the big plays, Clifford has been erratic and far from efficient over Penn State’s last five games, failing to complete better than 56% of his passes in each of those games.
Last week against Indiana, Clifford was just 11 of 23 for 179 yards and a touchdown. The prior week, he doubled his interception total with three picks in their loss at Minnesota.
While by no means a speedster, Clifford is capable of hurting defenses as a willing runner, either by design or when plays break down. He has rushed for 374 yards and five touchdowns on 97 carries this season. Last week, he carried the ball 10 times for 55 yards and two touchdowns.
Sophomore receiver K.J. Hamler gives Clifford one the most dynamic playmakers in the country to work with — if he’s on the field.
After bursting onto the scene as a freshman last season, Hamler is in the midst of a spectacular season in which he has accumulated nearly 800 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on just 46 receptions. In Hamler, Penn State has a player who puts immense pressure on defenders because of his ability to turn any catch into a scoring drive.
But Hamler left last week’s game against Indiana with a concussion, and while Franklin has said he is confident Hamler will play against the Buckeyes, no decision has been made. Should he be unable to go, it would be a major blow for the Nittany Lion offense.
That’s not to say Penn State doesn’t have any other weapons in the passing game, however. Jahan Dotson, who Day called as good as any receiver in the Big Ten earlier this week, is having a strong sophomore season of his own.
Dotson is averaging nearly 19 yards on his 22 receptions this season and has hauled in three touchdown catches.
Tight end Pat Freiermuth also received praise from Day this week as the best the Buckeyes have seen at the position this season. The 6-foot-5 sophomore has 34 catches for 424 yards and seven touchdowns this season, including a three-score performance at Michigan State on Oct. 26.
At running back, Penn State will have a pair of quality backs to run at Ohio State with the return of Noah Cain.
Cain, a freshman who was highly touted in last year’s class, has been out since the Oct. 26 game against Michigan State. Earlier this week, while not officially giving Cain a clean bill of health, Franklin said his freshman running back could have played last week if not for being overly cautious.
Cain has totaled 350 yards and six touchdowns on just 68 carries this season.
Regardless of whether Cain can go on Saturday or not, Penn State will rely heavily on sophomore running back Journey Brown, who has been the beneficiary of Cain’s absence by becoming the unquestioned featured back.
Brown is averaging 6.1 yards on 86 carries this season, rushing for 521 yards and scoring six times. He is coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances against Minnesota (14 carries, 124 yards, two touchdowns) and Indiana (21 carries, 100 yards, one touchdown).
Yards on the ground figure to be hard to come by for any back as Ohio State is giving up an average of just 90 yards per game, which ranks as the sixth-best average in the country.
The play of the offensive line has been an issue for Penn State for several years now, and while this year’s unit hasn’t been awful, its typical average showing on Saturday likely won’t turn out well for the Nittany Lions as Chase Young returns to lead an already-relentless defensive line.
Redshirt freshman left tackle Rasheed Walker will have his hands full, as will veteran right tackle Will Fries. For a unit that has already given up 19 sacks this season, the ability of the Penn State offense to keep pace with Ohio State on Saturday will largely hinge on whether or not the offensive line can hold up in the trenches.
The strength of the Penn State team for most of the season was thought to be in its defense. And while that is still the case, that strength has begun to show some weaknesses over recent weeks, particularly in the secondary.
For the season, Penn State ranks 84th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, giving up an average of 240 yards through the air.
Last week, the Nittany Lions surrendered 371 passing yards to Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey. The week prior to Indiana, they allowed 339 passing yards to Tanner Morgan and Minnesota.
In particular, cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and John Reid have been suspect this season, and they will likely be tested early and often by an Ohio State passing attack that is averaging 254 yards per game.
The deficiencies in the Penn State secondary can be partially covered up by a strong pass rush, which the Nittany Lions certainly possess; Penn State ranks 11th nationally in total sacks with 33.
Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, likely a first-day NFL draft pick next spring, leads the team with 6.5 sacks this season, although that total is relatively disappointing given his talent and lofty expectations coming into the season. He has just one sack over his last five games and just three total in Penn State’s seven Big Ten games this season.
Still, his talent is undeniable, and combined with fellow defensive end Shaka Toney, who also has 6.5 sacks on the season, their play on the edge will play a factor significantly in Penn State’s chances of pulling the upset.
Freshman Jayson Oweh, a former Ohio State target, provides even more depth at defensive end and has recorded four sacks this season.
For as suspect as the Penn State pass defense has been at times this season, its run defense has been anything but.
Penn State is allowing just 76 yards per game and 2.19 yards per carry on the ground, the best margins in the Big Ten and good for fourth in the entire country.
The play of linebackers Micah Parsons and Cam Brown have a lot to do with the elite play of the Penn State run defense. Parsons leads the team with 75 total tackles and 37 solo stops, and he has added two sacks. Brown is second with 56 total tackles and also has a sack.
A sophomore who many expected to end up playing at Ohio State before a recruiting violation forced Ohio State to stop their pursuit, Parsons is a budding star for Penn State and will need to be just that on Saturday for the Nittany Lions.
Kicker Jake Pinegar took over the kicking duties as a freshman last season to mixed results, going just 16-24 on his attempts, including 5-11 from 40-49 yards.
This season, Pinegar has been much more consistent, although he hasn’t been called upon too often. He is 9-10 on the season with a long of 47 yards.
Senior Blake Gillikin is in his fourth season as Penn State’s starting punter and has been solid if not spectacular. He is averaging 42.4 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards this season. He has a career-long of 74 yards.
In the return game, Hamler is always a threat every time he touches the football. While he is yet to return a kick for a touchdown in his career, he is a big play waiting to happen. In a game where a big special teams play could go a long way in deciding the outcome, Ohio State will need to be sound in their coverage.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.