After a slow start, Ohio State is surging. The offense has exceeded 50 points in each of their last four games, and J.T. Barrett is, somehow, making Buckeye fans forget about Braxton Miller. Urban Meyer's team has climbed out of an early hole of their own making to claim a top-15 ranking, and claim that Saturday's tilt under the lights in Happy Valley will be a statement game for the Buckeyes. All of this, combined with Penn State's complete and utter offensive ineffectuality have Penn State fans everywhere on the spectrum from "terrified" to "resigned" to "oh dear god, just let Christian Hackenberg walk out of the game alive."
But how do Ohio State fans feel about this weekend's matchup? Ian Cuevas, of our SBNation partner Land Grant Holy Land, was glad to let us know. And while he's (rightfully) confident about his team's chances on Saturday, Ian's also shed plenty of light on the Buckeye personnel and scheme, and for that, we thank you.
On to the questions:
Black Shoe Diaries: So, uh, how the hell did Ohio State struggle with Navy and lose to Virginia Tech?
LGHL: I think there were a lot of different factors that went into making those games a lot tougher than they needed to be. To start, I have to mention the offensive line play. Returning only one starter from last year meant a ton of new guys were expected to be at the same level as one of the best offensive lines in the country last season. So when they came out against Navy, I think some of the inexperience hurt them for the first two games. They were simply outmatched against Virginia Tech's defense, which is still statistically in the top 20 in the country.
Despite their record, Navy still has the third best rushing attack in the nation, so it wasn't too much of a surprise that the Midshipmen had success running the ball against the Buckeyes because, well, that's what they do well. The triple option is pretty difficult to defend, especially when a team makes that their entire offensive strategy.
For the Virginia Tech loss, specifically, the Buckeyes seemed overwhelmed against the Hokie defense. The next week at his press conference, Urban Meyer told the media that he hadn't prepared his team for what Virginia Tech was running (which is mind-blowing, really) and that it was on his staff to not let that happen. Michael Brewer also had a really impressive game, connecting with his receivers even if his passes weren't totally on the mark. It was just one of those games where seemingly everything went wrong for Ohio State.
BSD: Over the last month-plus, J.T. Barrett has looked every bit Braxton Miller's equal. How has he been so good, so fast?
LGHL: It's a bit surprising to me, too. I credit it to the fact that he redshirted last year and was able to fully learn and understand the playbook while being able to practice them on the field as well. Learning to play with the unit began before this year, and you can sense some of that comfort level on the field each Saturday, making him look like a seasoned veteran. The coaching staff has done a great job of making smart calls that limit Barrett's turnovers (provided he makes the correct reads) and putting him in a position to succeed.
Of course, the wide array of talent surrounding him helps too. The stable of running backs provides plenty of speed and athleticism to keep moving the chains or getting crucial yards on first or second down. The experience of wide receivers and tight ends has helped tremendously as well, from Devin Smith to Evan Spencer and his tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
BSD: Obviously, the strength of Ohio State's defense is its front four. Where are the Buckeyes more vulnerable?
LGHL: I'm sticking with the Ohio State secondary when it comes to where the Buckeyes are the most vulnerable. Overall, the secondary has improved steadily over the course of the season to the point where they are now ranked 16th in pass defense nationally. Still, if you're going to pick a weak spot, this would be it. Still a relatively green unit, the secondary this season has been solid, but known to have a lapse in judgement and give up a big play here and there.
Facing Christian Hackenberg will be a very good test for this Buckeye secondary who have looked slightly suspect against strong passing teams. With the Nittany Lions ranked 32nd in passing offense, I'd certainly trust my quarterback to try and take Ohio State head on and let it fly.
BSD: Most of the backs and receivers of the past few years have graduated. What skill players should Penn State be on the lookout for?
LGHL: Replacing guys like Carlos Hyde is never an easy task. But Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State's starting running back, has stepped up as the primary ball carrier for the Buckeyes this season and has done a solid job with 91 carries for 531 yards and 4 touchdowns. You should get to know all three of Ohio State's running backs though, as Rod Smith and Curtis Samuel will see plenty of action on the field. Smith is mainly a goal-line, short-yardage type of back for the Buckeyes, while Curtis Samuel can provide a spark at any given time. He's tough enough to run between the tackles and quick enough to bounce it outside.
Some other key names I would include would be Michael Thomas and Dontre Wilson/Jalin Marshall. Thomas has taken over as the go-to wide receiver in absence of Philly Brown, and has caught 21 passes for 377 yards and 5 touchdowns, becoming Barrett's favorite target over the course of the season. The combined efforts of Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall fulfill the H-back role for Ohio State and are extremely dangerous in the open field. Expect lots of screens, short routes and jet sweeps from these two.
BSD: What would need to go wrong for Penn State to pull off the upset?
LGHL: I think if the Nittany Lions can effectively stop the running game and force J.T. Barrett to throw all game, then things might swing in their favor. Barrett is human and can make mistakes. Pressuring the offensive line (who has improved a lot over the past few weeks) and hoping that they'll revert back to the Virginia Tech performance would be worst case scenario for Ohio State, combined with the running game not having any sort of success.
Ohio State's secondary would also have to regress as well, as they've been improving slowly each week too. But if Hackenberg and Penn State can jump on the Buckeyes early, maybe the pressure of playing from behind will force more mistakes from a fairly young secondary.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
LGHL: I'm taking Ohio State 37-17 in this one. I think the Nittany Lions get off to a fast start but the adjustments the Buckeyes make will prove to be too much for Penn State to handle.
Thanks again, Ian, and I think speak for a large chunk of Penn State fans when I say that you prediction sounds pretty damn good to me. And don't forget to read Land Grant Holy Land all season long for the best info on our rivals to the west on all the interwebs.