OHIO STATE OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE While Ohio State's offense has been sluggish at times, they remain one of the best in college football, brimming with talented playmakers who can score at a moment's notice. So far Cardale Jones has not lived up to the lofty expectations he set after a mesmerizing postseason in 2014 where he led the Buckeyes to an unexpected national championship following the injury of All-Big Ten quarterback J.T. Barrett. Despite plenty of hand-wringing from the Buckeye faithful, Jones will remain as the starter with Barrett tacking snaps in red-zone/short yardage situations- reminiscent of how Urban Meyer used C.J. Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida during the Gators 2006 national championship season. On the season, Jones is completing 62.7 percent of passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions to go along with 146 yards on the ground. Jones has perhaps the strongest arm in the nation but lacks touch at times. Barrett set a single-season record for the most total touchdowns in Big Ten history as a redshirt freshman in 2014, but has not been nearly as efficient in limited opportunities under center. He will get much more use going forward when Ohio State is close to the goal line, and is extremely difficult to stop in the read-option attack.
Running back Ezekiel Elliot is arguably the nation's most dangerous offensive player and may just well claim the Heisman by season's end. After a somewhat slow start, Elliot is on pace for a 1,670 yards and 20 TDs on the ground- although expect those numbers to be even higher since Elliot is the rare type of back who seems to get stronger as the season progresses. Elliot is a threat to score any time he touches the ball, and already has several long touchdown runs on the season. If Penn State's defense remains on the field too long on Saturday, there is little to no doubt Elliot will take full advantage with several big plays in the second half. He has also contributed 16 catches for 110 yards on the season.
In typical Meyer fashion, Ohio State has a plethora of interchangeable dangerous receivers that make it extremely difficult for opposing defenses to focus on stopping anyone in particular. Junior Michael Thomas is leading the charge with 27 receptions for 399 yards and four touchdowns and has the size and ability to be productive in a variety of roles. Sophomores Jalin Marshall and Curtis Samuel line up all over the field to seek out mismatches. Both are slippery and know how to find holes in the defense. Former All-Big Ten quarterback Braxton Miller is yet another extremely dangerous option. While he lagged off after an incredible week one performance at Virginia Tech, he is coming off a season high five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown against Maryland. He's about as dangerous as they come once he gets the ball in the open field.
Penn State's defense continues to get healthy with the key returns of linebacker Brandon Bell and safeties Jordan Lucas and Marcus Allen. Penn State's outstanding defensive line will need to continue its dominance to limit Elliot and get pressure on the Buckeyes quarterbacks. It will also be crucial for the secondary to come up big in run support to prevent multiple long gains by Elliot. If the Nittany Lions have any hope for an upset, the defense will need a repeat performance of 2014 when they only allowed 17 points in regulation.
OHIO STATE DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE The Buckeyes run a standard 4-3 defense, and have the talent to run it very well. Ohio State has standouts throughout the defense and does not have a specific weakness to target. However, teams such as Indiana and Maryland have had some success in finding holes at times for the occasional big play.
The key match-up heading into Saturday is Ohio State's star-laden defensive line against Penn State's offensive line. Simply put, the Buckeyes front four has the potential to severely outclass Penn State in the trenches and completely doom the prospects of any hopes of productivity. As Penn State fans know all too well, Joey Bosa is the cornerstone of the defensive line who is capable of making Christian Hackenberg's life a living nightmare on Saturday. Bosa has not had the numbers many were expecting this season, but that is easy to understand since so many gameplans center around stopping (or at least slowing) him. Adolphus Washington is a talented senior who also can easily find his way into the backfield, along with sophomore defensive end Tyquan Lewis, who is the current team leader in tackles for loss (9) and sacks (5.5).
Ohio State has an outstanding set of linebackers in Raekwon McMillan, Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. McMillan has been exceptional covering the field, averaging 10.2 tackles per game while Perry and Lee are especially dangerous in blitzing situations.
If Penn State's offensive line is able to keep Hackenberg upright, the Nittany Lions best bet may be to attack a somewhat depleted Buckeyes secondary. The Buckeyes will be without several key reserves because of injuries and suspension. However, Ohio State has what may be the best tandem of safeties in the nation in Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. Both are especially adept in supporting the run and make the type of bone-crunching hits that make anyone think twice before going over the middle.
While Penn State's trio of freshmen running backs have shown improvement, it will be absolutely crucial for the Nittany Lions to have a healthy Saquon Barkley ready to play on Saturday. Barkley has the quickness and vision needed to make plays against a defense like Ohio State that can close on gaps in an instant. His presence will also help keep the defense honest and not allow them to solely focus on pressuring Hackenberg, which they can do very well if Penn State allows them to pin their ears back and continually send pressure.
While the offensive line will have their work cut out for them on Saturday night, they will be bolstered by the return of Andrew Nelson after he made his first start against Indiana following his week two injury against Buffalo.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Duke transfer Jack Willoughby handles kickoff and placekicking duties for the Buckeyes, and has connected on six of nine field goals on the season. His long is only 31 yards, and all three of his misses have been in the 40-plus yard range. Junior Cameron Johnston is an exceptional punter with a 47.2 yard average and 13 punts of 50-plus yards in just six games. His powerful leg will do wonders for the Buckeyes if the Penn State defense is able to manage a battle for field position. Marshall, Samuel and Wilson handle the return duties and all have the explosiveness to take one to the house if the Penn State kick units neglect its responsibilities to stay in their lanes as we have seen at times this season.
National treasure Joey Julius is coming off a poor performance after missing consecutive extra points against Indiana, but James Franklin has vowed that he will remain as the team's kicker. If he struggles, freshman Tyler Davis may see the field again. The punting duties has reverted back to Daniel Pasquariello after an undisclosed injury to Chris Gulla. Both have struggled in the starting role, but Penn State may miss Gulla's hands more than his foot as the team's holder.
OHIO STATE-31 PENN STATE-17 There is part of me that believes this is the week Ohio State puts everything together to play to its potential and stomp Penn State, although I'm doing my best to suppress those thoughts.
Without knowing the status of Barkley, the most likely scenario seems to be that Penn State's defense will be able to limit the Buckeyes offense enough to keep it close into the second half and force a couple turnovers (let's say an Austin Johnson fumble recovery and a Jordan Lucas interception) to boost the offense, while Hackenberg and company muster a few big plays of their own to keep pace with the Ohio State offense. However, a lack of offensive production in the second half ultimately dooms the Nittany Lions and Ezekiel Elliot produces two long touchdown runs late in the game against a fatigued Penn State defense that seals the deal for the unbeaten Buckeyes.