Penn State enters this weekend’s match-up against Ohio State as a nearly three-touchdown underdog despite being a one-loss, top 10 team.
No one outside of Happy Valley is giving the Nittany Lions a chance. If the Penn State is going to shock the world on Saturday, it’s going to need to make some vast improvements from the last two weeks. But these four areas below are going to go further than most in any upset effort.
Defense: Secondary play
At one point this season, Penn State’s secondary was solid and steady, but since the second half against Michigan it’s safe to say that the secondary has taken a step off. Perhaps the start to the season was a mirage, perhaps it was because it faced two of the better passing offenses in the Big Ten the last two weeks. Either way, the Nittany Lions secondary needs to play their best game of the season against Justin Fields and the Buckeyes. Fields has an amazing 33-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season, if the Nittany Lions hope to have a chance to win, they’ll need to pick off Fields at least once.
Offense: Clifford needs to hit the easy ones
Overall, I don’t think many Penn State fans would be disappointed in Sean Clifford’s performance this season. Outside of his showing against Minnesota, Clifford has been pretty good, going 168 of 282 (59.6%) for 2,450 yards, 22 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. His 22 touchdowns are already tied for the fifth-most in a single season for Penn State and with solid performances against Ohio State and Rutgers, he’ll be in the top six for most passing yards in a season as well.
That being said, the one thing we’ve seen lately with Clifford is that he’s struggled with hitting shorter, easier passes at times. That can’t be the case on Saturday afternoon. Clifford will need to hit all the easy passes if the Nittany Lions hope to score enough to win. He can’t miss the easy crossing routes, he can’t miss the short routes to the sidelines and if there is a wide open man deep, he has to hit them nearly every time, too. I don’t want to over exaggerate, but at the same time it may be safe to say that Clifford needs to play nearly a perfect game against the Buckeyes.
An additional area that Clifford will need to work on for Saturday is moving the offense fast and with aggression. At times this season, Clifford has struggled to keep tempo and it has visibly irked head coach James Franklin in each of the last two games.
Defense: Penetration from the defensive line
At times this season, Penn State’s defensive line has felt non-existent. The Nittany Lions have struggled to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks and that certainly hasn’t helped the secondary’s issues of late, but the defensive line has struggle long before that. Over the last five years, the Nittany Lions have been consistently in the top five in the nation in sacks. This season they’re ranked No. 11. While this is still a strong ranking, especially with 33 sacks, for a team that has hit the high 40s consistently over the last few years, the dropoff is noticeable. They’ll need a big afternoon out of not just Yetur Gross-Matos, but from the entire defensive line.
Offense: Need more receiving options than just Freiermuth and Hamler
It’s no secret that Sean Clifford loves himself some Pat Freiermuth and KJ Hamler in the passing attack. Of his 168 completions this season, 80 of those have gone to the combination of Freiermuth (34) and Hamler (46). On Saturday, the Buckeyes will certainly be doing all they can to cover the leading duo and chances are Clifford will need to look for other options. The two most-likely options are Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter. Dotson has had a solid sophomore season for the Nittany Lions, pulling in 22 receptions, but has felt rather quiet over the last few weeks outside of a big play against the Golden Gophers. Shorter, on the other hand, is a player that Penn State fans keep hoping will break out at anytime but has yet to do so. Against the Buckeyes on Saturday would certainly be a good time for that breakout. The former five-star, No. 1-ranked wide receiver coming out of high school has just 12 receptions in his first two seasons on campus in 10 games.