You could forgive Ohio State fans for thinking it would be easy: Not only did the Buckeyes return the overwhelming bulk of last year's team that skated to the national championship last season, but they came into this season as not only, essentially, a unanimous Number One, but with a schedule that didn't even hint at trouble until November.
But while the Buckeyes have held up their part of the bargain, and enter Saturday's match-up undefeated and still top-ranked, it's been a bit of a grind. Ohio State squeaked past Northern Illinois, couldn't put away Indiana, and even let Maryland hang around before pulling away from a team that was hours away from canning its head coach. Now, in comes Penn State, an obviously flawed team but one that gave Urban Meyer more of a scare last year than almost any other team in the country could.
So, the ultimate question is which Ohio State team will show up tomorrow: The reigning national championships with a clear path to the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff, or the talented team that hasn't quite put it together for four quarters yet, and plays down to its level of competition? Chad Peltier, of Land-Grant Holy Land, our SBNation sister site, covers the Buckeyes and thinks that just maybe, those two are one and the same. We thank him deeply for his insight and graciousness.
Black Shoe Diaries: Ohio State is the #1 team in the country, but they haven't quite played like it, despite a pretty soft schedule. Are Ohio State fans hitting the panic button, or are they confident this team will look like last year's Florida State squad--making it through the regular season unscathed but playing down to their opponents?
Land-Grant Holy Land: I think the main concern among fans is that this team is 2014 Florida State – playing down to opponents until getting blasted in the Playoff or at the end of the regular season…against Michigan, for instance. I’d say the fan base is split in three groups. A number are homers, unwilling to admit that the Buckeyes might lose or even denying that Ohio State has been disappointing this season. Another, probably equal-sized portion are total pessimists, arguing that the Buckeyes are done for against Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan this year (and forget about next year too, thanks). The middle is cautiously optimistic, acknowledging that this team’s floor is a lot like last year’s floor – and hopefully we just haven’t seen this team’s ceiling yet.
BSD: Cardale Jones was a revelation down the stretch last year, but hadn't looked great in 2015 until last week. How have opposing defenses figured him out, and should Penn State expect to see both him and JT Barrett on Saturday?
LGHL: This is tricky – it’s probable that some of Cardale’s issues this season aren’t just on him. The playcalling might be a bigger issue, as is the offensive line’s performance against odd defensive fronts. Losing Devin Smith hurt, as well, as the offense searched for an identity for at least the first four games. But Cardale has had underthrow issues on deep passes and a willingness to take risks that have turned up as interceptions this year. I also think it’s fair to say some of Cardale’s success last season was due in large part to his receivers winning contested deep passes. Explosive plays have kind of driven Cardale’s numbers both seasons. When Cardale is on, he is really on – but consistency is sometimes an issue. You should almost certainly see J.T., however, as he adds a different dimension (theoretically) to the playcalling an QB run game in the red zone. Barrett is shiftier and more explosive – Cardale is more a bulldozer runner (though Cardale could likely have done many of the same runs J.T. did last week in the red zone, J.T. probably makes better decisions in the run game in terms of run/pass options and zone reads).
BSD: I've seen some criticism that Ezekiel Elliott hasn't been getting enough touches, and just looking at the numbers it seems like the Buckeyes haven't been able to get the ball to its skill players enough. Is there more of a concern as to Ohio State's gameplanning and playcalling with Tom Herman having left for Houston?
LGHL: Definitely. I think most of us undervalued Tom Herman and thought the transition for Ed Warinner to offensive coordinator would be a seamless transition. But the co-offensive coordinator thing with Tim Beck has been up-and-down so far, with reported issues play calling from the field versus the booth. I think the bigger issue is the playcalling and responding to what the defense is doing rather than just a simple "Feed Zeke" solution. The offensive line, due to the playcalling and somewhat due to underwhelming play, has made it tough for Elliott to have any running room… until Elliott breaks an explosive play. But his overall efficiency numbers are much more similar to the regular season last year than many acknowledge (and Elliott was good-not-great during the regular season).
BSD: Ohio State has the 4th worst rush defense in the conference, and has been gashed the past two weeks by Zander Diamont and Perry Hills. Are the Buckeyes just vulnerable against a running QB, or does Penn State have a real chance to move the ball on the ground Saturday?
LGHL: I’d actually argue this is a little misleading. Yes, the run defense has been gashed in subsequent weeks. But: a) it’s been by running quarterbacks primarily and b) the Buckeyes are much better efficiency-wise than against big plays. The big plays – and by running quarterbacks primarily – are the real issue. So I think it’s reasonable to expect a 30-40% success rate running the ball with Penn State’s running backs and one or two explosive plays. If Saquon Barkley ends up playing this week, then add an explosive run or two. We don’t have many examples of explosive running backs against Ohio State this season (noting the level of competition thus far) but I think Barkley could do pretty well.
BSD: The Buckeyes "only" rank 5th in the Big Ten, with 19 sacks in 6 games. Is there any chance the Buckeyes won't just be able to tee off on Christian Hackenberg?
LGHL: There have been some pretty impressive defenses in the Big ten so far when it comes to sacks. I think the Buckeyes will do pretty well against the Penn State offensive line, but an explosive run game could go a long way to delay Buckeye edge rushers. I think Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, and of course Joey Bosa and Darron Lee could have big nights.
BSD: If Penn State is able to hang tight, or even come away with a win on Saturday, what will have had to go wrong for Ohio State?
LGHL: It’s obvious, but turnovers. It’s not crazy to imagine the Buckeyes losing the turnover battle, and all bets are off if that happens (the S&P+ win probability is already at 57% for the Buckeyes – it wouldn’t take much to turn this to a close one). Second, Saquon Barkley hits a few explosive plays. I’d watch his early success rate – if it’s north of 50%, then that is a bad, bad sign for Ohio State. Finally, if Penn State shuts down the explosive play aspect of Ohio State’s offense (big throws to Braxton/Jalin Marshall/Michael Thomas, random 75-yard runs by Ezekiel Elliott), then that’s also really bad news for Ohio State.
BSD: The line opened at Ohio State -17.5. Given the Buckeyes' struggles to put teams away, doesn't that seem a bit high? How do you see this one shaping up?
LGHL: Yes, this seems high to me. Vegas has consistently set the line high for the Buckeyes this season. I’d imagine this one stays fairly tight to the Penn State defense cutting down how many explosive plays Ohio State makes. But eventually I think the Buckeyes hit a few and pick up their efficiency levels. I don’t think Christian Hackenberg has much of an impact on the game – for me, it hinges on how effective Saquon Barkley is: if he plays and is efficient early on, then some turnovers could lead to an Ohio State loss. If he doesn’t play or is inefficient early, then the Buckeyes have the potential to run away. The Buckeyes have been highly volatile this season, so it’s easy to see anything happening. Final guess is an Ohio State win, 35-24.
Thanks again, Chad, for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to keep reading Land-Grant Holy Landall season long to stay up to date on our rivals to the west.