The Buckeyes went 10-2 last year and much to the chagrin of Penn State they were named Co-Big Ten Champions despite having a worse record and a loss in their head-to-head meeting with the Lions in Happy Valley. They capped off their season with a woodshed beatdown of the (not-so) Fighting Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. This season the Buckeyes are off to a great 3-0 start. They have already avenged one of their losses last year when they put the wood to Texas in Austin two weeks ago holding the defending National Champs to seven points. This weekend they look to avenge their other loss from last season. Oh yeah...did someone say they are ranked #1 in the polls or something?
The Buckeyes are unquestionably led by their senior quarterback, Troy Smith. After Brady Quinn's five turnover meltdown against Michigan, Smith is the new front runner in the Heisman race. For the season, Smith is 56-81 for 769 yards, 7 TD and 0 INT. Last year Smith completed 63% of his passes for 2282 yards, 16 TD and 4 INT. But his real threat is in his scrambling ability. Last year Smith rolled up 722 yards and 11 TD on the ground, but this year he has not been a threat to run at all with -14 yards rushing.
Let's hope we see lots of this.
Smith's favorite targets are WR Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez. Ginn is the deep ball threat that will spread the defense. Ohio State likes to use a lot of slants and crossing patterns to get him the ball. But when they need a tough 8-12 yards on third down to keep a drive moving, they have been turning to Gonzalez more and more often. So far the two have combined for 31 catches, 533 yards and 7 TD. TE Rory Nicol and WR Brian Robiskie are also formidable targets.
The running backs are solid as always with Ohio State. Antonio Pittman returns from his 1360 yard 7 TD campaign from a year ago. Joining him is VHT freshman Chris Wells, who thusfar has 85 yards rushing for a 4.3 ypc average.
The offensive line is great as always. They had to replace two starters from last year, but everyone has playing experience from last year.
One would expect the Buckeyes to drop off in defense after losing nine starters from a year ago. One would be wrong. This squad has looked just as impressive only giving up 26 points in their first three games combined including holding the defending champion Texas Longhorns to only seven points.
The defensive line is a strong unit anchored by DT Quinn Pitcock, who Penn State tried hard to recruit. He has already equaled his sack total from last year with four sacks. This group is pretty good, but has looked soft against the run at times. The Ohio State defense is ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rushing defense.
The great linebackers Hawk, Carpenter, and Schlegel are finally gone. (Hurray!) Rising up in their place is sophomore James Laurinaitis, son of former professional wrestler, Animal of the tag team called the Road Warriors. He wasn't highly recruited out of high school and didn't do much last year, but he had a huge game against Texas and all the sudden everyone in Columbus is saying "A.J. who?" I'm not convinced that one game makes a stud. Tressel says he still needs some work at being more consistent. Another linebacker to keep an eye on is Marcus Freeman, a sophomore who was very highly touted coming out of high school.
Your dad does what for a living?
Like Penn State, the secondary is a whole new cast of characters from last year thanks to Ashton Youbouty and Donte Whitner leaving early for the NFL. Starting at the corners are sophomore Malcolm Jenkins and former walk-on senior Antonio Smith. The safety positions seem to be one big platoon between Brandon Mitchel, Jamario O'Neil, Nick Patterson, and Anderson Russell. They have pretty decent talent but are short on experience much like the Nittany Lion safeties.
When Ohio State has the Ball
Basically you can expect to see a lot of the same we saw last year. The only name missing is Santonio Holmes, but Anthony Gonzalez has filled in admirably for Holmes. Last year the Nittany Lions stymied the Buckeye offense holding them to 10 points. Smith went 13-25 for 139 yards and 0 TD a year ago. He had 1 INT and five sacks in that game as well. He was often forced to scramble but only gained 15 yards on the day. Ginn was equally frustrated with only 3 catches for 40 yards. But that was then and this is now. Since that game the Buckeye offense found their groove and now they are one of the most feared offenses in college football. I expect to see a balanced attack with them using Ginn and Gonzalez to get an early lead, but in the second half we will see a ball control offense led by Pittman and Wells.
The Lions should try to counter this by containing Smith in the pocket and forcing him to beat us with his arm. I expect on 3rd down situations we will see Poz shadowing Smith to prevent him from rushing for the first down. The Lions will know where Ginn is at all times, but they are not going to throw everything at him and ignore Gonzalez like Texas did. I expect the Lions will do a good job of containing Pittman who only registered 58 yards rushing a year ago. This will be essential. If Pittman gets on a roll and the Penn State safeties start cheating up the Buckeyes will try to hit Ginn on the deep ball.
When Penn State has the Ball
I look for the Nittany Lions to keep the ground game going. I think you will see them attacking with Tony Hunt early, and based on the OSU games against Northern Illinois and Texas I think the Lions can have some success. Further, they have lost the time of possession game in every contest this year. If the linebackers are chasing Troy Smith around all day they are going to get winded and the game will get out of hand like it did in South Bend. So the Lions have to control the ball to keep the defense on the sideline and fresh for the fourth quarter.
In the passing game the Lions have to take advantage of the cornerbacks. I like my chances with DWill, Butler, Norwood, and Bell going up against a sophomore first year starter and a former walk-on. This is a matchup the Lions have to win. And if the Lions are successful in getting the running game going, the Buckeyes will cheat the safeties up to run support which may open up some opportunities for the deep ball.
If everything goes right, the Lions can win this game. But given their track record over the last three games I'm not very optimistic. Anthony Morelli is still too anxious to go for the deep ball. He has to learn to take what the defense gives him and keep moving the chains. They have to do a better job of protecting the ball. The field goal team has been abysmal. Having said that, I think the Lions will keep it close. The fact of the matter, as much as Nittany Lion fans hate to hear it, is the Buckeyes reload and the Nittany Lions still rebuild. This is a rebuilding year.