Penn State will look to bounce back from last week’s loss to Indiana by taking on the Big Ten’s premier team in the Ohio State Buckeyes. To preview this week’s game, we caught up with Land Grant Holy Land’s lead editor Gene Ross. You can check out the other side of our discussion where I answer questions about Penn State, here.
Ohio State is coming off a great first season under Ryan Day and lost a good deal of talent but still returns a ton especially on the offensive side of the ball. What are the expectations for the Buckeyes offense this season with all their talent mostly returning and what are the expectations for a Buckeyes defense?
On offense, Ohio State is expecting to be elite. We saw a little bit of it in the season opener against Nebraska, but the passing game really has a chance to be truly special this season. Justin Fields is an otherworldly talent, and he is likely already the greatest QB in program history if not near the very top of the list. The Buckeyes have a seemingly endless stable of former five-star wide receivers at their disposal, led by Chris Olave (who was actually a three-star diamond in the rough) and Garrett Wilson. The offensive line should be one of the best units in the country, and the ground game will hopefully come along with a pair of capable guys in the backfield.
Defense is a much bigger question mark. As you said, they lost a great deal of talent this offseason, including a bunch of their most important starters on the defensive side of the ball in DE Chase Young, CBs Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette, S Jordan Fuller, LB Malik Harrison and a trio of defensive tackles. They return CB Shaun Wade, who will be one of their top players on that side of the ball this season, and have a few up-and-coming guys they expect to fill in the void in the backfield like Sevyn Banks and Josh Proctor. The linebackers are experienced, but have a tendency to make mistakes, especially in the run game. The defensive line will really be the biggest area of concern moving forward, as they were less than spectacular in the opener.
The Buckeyes are coming off a 52-17 victory over Nebraska that probably was a little closer than the score will indicate as it seems the game really just got out of control for Nebraska with the turnovers playing a big part in that. That being said, the Buckeyes seemed to struggle at times on both sides of the trenches, how expected were those struggles, and what are the expectations going forward?
I wouldn’t quite say the game was closer than the final score indicated, but Nebraska was able to get things going on offense for a good chunk of the first half. Ohio State’s defense actually played okay through the first 30 minutes, but the Huskers racked up the majority of their yards on some long runs as Nebraska ran an odd read-option with two QBs in the backfield that I don’t think the Buckeyes (or anyone, really) anticipated. They made adjustments in the second half, and only allowed three points the rest of the way.
If there were any struggles in the trenches, it was more so on the defensive line. Personally I thought the offensive line played pretty meh in the moment, but upon a second watch of the game they actually played really well. Any issues in the run game were mostly a result of the running backs missing some big holes — which I’ll attribute to first game jitters — and the sacks on Fields were more a product of him trying to extend plays — which you’ll live with for a QB of his caliber, as it works out most of the time.
The defensive line did struggle, but I don’t think it’s a huge concern moving forward. As previously stated, Nebraska ran A LOT of read-option stuff, and so there weren’t all too many drop backs to really get a good gauge of the line’s ability to get pressure. Plus, the Huskers did return their entire offensive line, so that unit is already strong and accustomed to playing with one another. I also don’t think Zach Harrison, who is likely Ohio State’s best defensive end with Chase Young off to the league, played nearly enough. Hopefully he will get more snaps as the season progresses.
Penn State’s defense against Ohio State’s offense is going to be a great matchup but Penn State’s offense against Ohio State’s defense may be the matchup that moreso decides the game. If the Nittany Lions are going to put up points to stay with the Buckeyes offense, how must they attack the OSU defense?
I actually think the Penn State offense does a lot of things well that could result in them putting up some points on Saturday. For starters, Sean Clifford will have to make things happen with his legs. We saw he was able to do that in the opener against Indiana as he finished as the team’s leading rusher. Ohio State has struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks pretty much since the beginning of time, and so I’m sure James Franklin will look to exploit that. The Buckeyes linebackers have also had trouble covering talented tight ends in the past, and Penn State just so happens to have one of most talented pass-catching TEs in the country in Pat Freiermuth. If the Nits are gonna hang around with OSU, those guys will likely be the reason why.
To briefly discuss the Ohio State offense, the group that will give the Nittany Lions the most trouble (most likely) is the wide receivers. Can you briefly discuss just how ridiculously deep this group is and the expectations for this group on Saturday and the rest of the season?
Ohio State may have the most talented group of wide receivers in the country, especially now with Jaylen Waddle on the shelf at Alabama. Chris Olave got dinged up in the opener, but I expect him to be good to go on Saturday. Garrett Wilson moved from the outside to the slot this year, and he has quickly become Fields’ favorite target. The former five-star prospect led the team with seven catches for 129 yards and a TD against Nebraska, and he is near impossible to guard out of the slot, especially when matched up with linebackers or safeties.
While they were the two main targets for Fields this past weekend, I expect to see Ohio State spread the ball out more in Happy Valley, and they certainly have the horses to do it. Starting alongside those two is Jameson Williams, a guy with blazing speed who is a threat to score anytime the ball is in his hands. Behind them are a trio of highly-touted freshmen, including the nation’s No. 1 WR in the 2020 class in Julian Fleming (a Pennsylvania guy I’m sure you’re all aware of) and fellow five-star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who made perhaps the catch of the weekend against the Huskers, as well as Gee Scott Jr. They also have more than capable tight ends, if they ever elect to throw the ball their way, in Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert.
With Fields at the helm and a deep group of pass-catchers this talented, Ohio State is going to make a lot of defenses look silly this season, regardless of how good they are in the secondary.
How do you see Saturday’s game between the two teams playing out and without a White Out crowd behind them, do you think Penn State can keep it close?
The absence of a White Out crowd is obviously a huge break for the Buckeyes, but I don’t think it will really impact whether or not Penn State is able to be competitive in this game. I think both of these teams are going strength on strength, with Ohio State’s pass-heavy attack up against PSU’s okay secondary and Penn State’s mobile QB and talented tight end up against OSU’s questionable D-line and linebackers.
As we all know, these two teams have played more than their fair share of close games. While I felt Ohio State really dominated the game last season, despite what the final score said, the two games before that were decided by one point. I think Penn State is a tough matchup for this Buckeyes unit this early in the year while they are still trying to get their legs on defense, and if they are able to put points on the board, it will be a hotly contested showdown. I don’t really think anyone in the country can keep this offense under 35-40, so the Nittany Lions will have to have a strong offensive showing to come away with a victory.
I definitely don’t think Penn State’s loss in the season opener is any indication of how good a team they are, and if Ohio State isn’t prepared for a battle, they could be in for a long night. I predicted a 42-21 Buckeyes victory in our preview podcast Hangout in the Holy Land, but a few forced turnovers by the Nittany Lions defense and a strong night from Clifford could certainly make things interesting at State College.