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No. 8 Penn State at No. 2 Ohio State: Game Preview

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It’s a top 10 match-up in the ‘Shoe, with about everything on the line.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 29 Ohio State at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Penn State looks to maintain its playoff hopes with a visit to the Horseshoe to take on the undefeated Buckeyes.

(#8) Penn State (9-1, 6-1) vs. (#2) Ohio State (9-0, 6-0)

Kickoff: Noon, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH

The Betting Line: Penn State +19

TV: ABC - Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst), Jenny Taft (sideline)

Weather: A cold and potentially wet afternoon, with high of 40 and a rain/snow mix expected early in the day.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 54-22, 6th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 78-37, 9th Year

VS. OHIO STATE: 1-4

Ryan Day:

OHIO STATE RECORD: 13-0, 1st Full Season

OVERALL RECORD: Same

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

NOW THE FUN PART....

OHIO STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

One of the biggest storylines of the college football offseason was the transfer of Justin Fields to Ohio State after spending his true freshman season at Georgia. Ohio State could not have asked for a better match following the early departure of Dwayne Haskins to the NFL, as Fields has materialized as a strong Heisman candidate heading into the home stretch.

It’s hard to find any weaknesses in Fields’ game, especially when considering it’s his first season as a starting quarterback at this level. He’s accurate, he can makes plays with his legs, he makes smart choices and almost never turns the ball over. Through 10 games as a Buckeye, Fields is completing 69.1 percent of passes with 31 touchdowns to just one interception. He’s also responsible for an additional 10 touchdowns on the ground and 377 rushing yards.

Fields can be extremely dangerous with his legs when left with room in front of him, especially on third downs. He is certainly a pass-first quarterback, although that is partly because the lack of close contests for the Buckeyes this season has allowed for them to avoid the risk. Fields has 10 or more rushing attempts in four games this season, and very well could exceed his high mark of 13 with Penn State and Michigan on the horizon.

Joining Fields in the backfield is another one of the nation’s most dangerous players, running back J.K. Dobbins. The Texas native is in the mold of a Saquon Barkley, someone with “elite wiggle” who can break a play wide open at any time. He can add instant offense, even when the defense is doing an exemplary job of containment. He’s already racked up 1,289 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns this season, with six games of 121 or more rushing yards. He’s also been outstanding against the better defenses the Buckeyes have faced, going off for 221 total yards against Wisconsin and 174 against Michigan State.

The Buckeyes have several outstanding wideouts, and each can have a big game as Fields does a nice job of spreading the ball around. Sophomore Chris Olave is enjoying a breakout season, leading the team with 593 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Senior K.J. Hill is leading the way with 38 catches, good for 423 yards and six touchdowns. Binjimen Victor can create mismatches with his 6-4, 200 lb. frame, and also plays a big role in the passing game with 27 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns.

The Ohio State offensive line has obviously done a fantastic job allowing the talent at the skill positions to be so productive. They do a good job of protecting Fields, but did give up five sacks against Wisconsin. Penn State’s defensive line has been inconsistent at getting to the quarterback, and absolutely must get in Fields’ face to slow down a lethal Buckeyes offense.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. OHIO STATE DEFENSE

First and foremost, Ohio State welcomes back Chase Young after a very well-timed two game suspension. Simply put, Young is probably the best overall player and would be a Heisman front-runner if the award recognized defensive players as it should. Young has proven unstoppable throughout the season, and Penn State absolutely must find a way to slow him down. Otherwise, it will be a long afternoon of Young blowing up play after play in the backfield. In just eight games (and most where he checked out early), Young already has 13.5 sacks, 15.5 TFLs and five forced fumbles. Even without Young, the Buckeyes know how to get to the quarterback. The team has 41 combined sacks, with five plays who have at least six, and 14 who have at least three this season. Even if the Nittany Lions somehow succeed in shutting down Young, there are plenty of others who are capable of a big day.

This game likely has the best combined group of linebackers out of any contest in 2019. As usual, the Buckeyes are outstanding at the linebacker position. Malik Harrson leads the team in tackles with 52, including 13.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. Tuf Borland and Pete Werner are also among the best linebackers in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes also continue its tradition of an outstanding secondary, following many first round NFL Draft picks in recent history. They are only giving up a measly 126 yards through the air per contest, and are one of just three teams to allow under 10 yards per completion (fellow playoff contenders Georgia and Oregon are the others). Jeffrey Okudah is a tall cornerback who is likely set to join the 1st round club, and leads the team with three interceptions. Senior Jordan Fuller is one of the best safeties around, and has loads of experience under his belt. He is second on the team with 45 tackles and two interceptions.

Penn State is hoping for the return of running back Noah Cain, who has missed the last two games after suffering an injury against Michigan State on Oct. 26. KJ Hamler, by far Penn State’s most explosive playmaker, is also questionable back after leaving the Indiana game in the first half last week. Even with Cain back in the line-up, expect the Nittany Lions to get things going on the ground early with Journey Brown, who has consecutive 100-yard games. The absence of Hamler will be much more difficult to overcome, as he must be accounted for at all times and opens things up throughout the offense.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Buckeyes don’t settle for field goals all that often, but have a reliable kicker with excellent range in Blake Haubeil when needed. He’s connected on eight of 10 field goals this season with a 55-yarder against Northwestern to his credit. He’s also perfect on all 67 extra point attempts on the season. He finished 10 of 13 on field goals in his first year as a starter in 2018. Ohio State also has one of the most consistently fantastic punters in the nation in Dru Chrisman, who is averaging 44.3 yards per punt on the season and has a punt of at least 50 yards or more in seven of 10 games in 2019.

Running back Demario McCall doesn’t get an abundance of carries, which has benefited him as the main return man. The explosive senior boasts a 23.2 yard average on kick returns and 8.1 yards on punt returns.

PREDICTION

Ohio State-42, Penn State-21

I’ve been trying to get into the optimistic part of my brain that shows me the path to a Penn State victory. Unfortunately, I just can’t find it (although the last time I was this pessimistic about a Penn State game was when these teams met in 2016, for what it’s worth). The best-case scenario is your typical upset recipe- win the turnover battle, limit big plays, avoid costly mistakes, and most importantly, plenty of long drives to keep Fields and company on the sideline. However, even if it turns into a defensive slugfest it seems likely that the Buckeyes’ slew of playmakers will eventually strike against a tired defense, even if they are held in-check most of the game. However the game plays out, I just don’t see the Nittany Lion offense being able to keep pace.

My best guess is that Ohio State opens up an early two-score lead, and Penn State strikes back to stay within 10 points or so most of the contest before the Buckeyes playmakers take over and pull ahead late in the third quarter or early in the fourth. It will be a frustrating afternoon for the boys in blue, but at least Rutgers is on tap for next week.