It’s the biggest game of the season for Penn State, as James Franklin and Co. head to the Horseshoe with hopes of upending the Buckeyes for the first time since 2016. The fortunate news for the Nittany Lions: if there is ever a year to walk out of Columbus with a victory, *this* is the year. Ohio State — compared to previous years — doesn’t appear quite as strong, while Penn State — compared to previous years — appears stronger than usual. This follows suit with what Vegas is thinking; the -4.5 for the Buckeyes is the lowest it’s been since 2018.
With this game being more of a toss up than usual, let’s take a look at key position matchups that could decide the outcome come Saturday.
1. Penn State Tight Ends vs. Ohio State Linebackers/Safeties
We’ll get to the matchups that have been getting the majority of the focus shortly, but let’s start with a matchup that hasn’t been getting as much attention. The Nittany Lions, to no one’s surprise, have really featured their tight ends throughout the season. Tyler Warren and Theo Johnson are tied for second on the team in catches with 16 a piece, and along with third tight end Khalil Dinkins, have accounted for 75% of Drew Allar’s passing touchdowns.
While the return of Harrison Wallace to the wide receiving corps should give Allar an additional viable option out wide, it doesn’t negate just how important the tight ends will be come Saturday. The Ohio State defense under Jim Knowles largely operates out of a 4-2-5 base defense, and has been more conservative this year than it was last year. The Buckeyes haven’t created havoc like they did in 2022 — their TFLs are down from 6.62 per game to 5.5 — but the reason for that is they are much better at limiting big plays, going from No. 12 in the conference in 30+ yard plays given up to a No. 2 ranking in the B1G currently.
All of this is to say: while many of us are hoping for Penn State to open up the offense with more explosive plays, it might be the safety blankets in the middle of the defense that win the game for the Nittany Lions. There will be space and opportunity for Johnson and Warren to find the soft spots in the zone for moderate gains; it’s just a matter of Allar having the right timing to get them the ball.
2. Marvin Harrison Jr. vs. Penn State Secondary
While the headline grab this week has been “Marvin Harrison Jr. vs. Kalen King,” that is just a piece of the pie. Yes, we’ll see King matched up with Harrison Jr. for a good bit of the time, but one cornerback shadowing a wide receiver isn’t something Penn State has really done under either Brent Pry or Manny Diaz led defenses. This matchup will be much more of a group effort, with Johnny Dixon getting his fair share of cracks against Harrison Jr. too.
Regardless of the corner that lines up across from Harrison Jr. on any given play, what will be just as important is the help over the top from the safeties. As James Franklin pointed out during his press conference on Tuesday, Harrison Jr’s body control and ball skills combined with his 6-foot-4 frame makes him an absolute menace down the field in one-on-one situations. As good as King and Dixon are, Penn State’s plan going into the game should *not* be to give Kyle McCord the opportunity to lob passes 30+ yards down the field for Harrison Jr. with just one man on him. That is a losing recipe.
3. Ohio State Offensive Tackles vs. Penn State Defensive Ends
The Buckeyes were tasked with replacing two NFL starters — Paris Johnson and Dawand Jones — at left and right tackle, and it doesn’t seem like things are going swimmingly so far with Josh Simmons (LT) and Josh Fryar (RT) as their replacements.
The second sack of McCord. RT Josh Fryar is beaten here. pic.twitter.com/7sE4GZ6Ph2— Bill Rabinowitz (@brdispatch) October 9, 2023
While Twitter is a cesspool that is usually going to skew negative, there is some credence to the complaints, especially when you compare Simmons and Fryar to what the Buckeyes had at the bookends last season. They went from two guys in Johnson and Jones who are currently starting in the NFL to a right tackle who is better suited for guard and a left tackle who didn’t even earn All-Mountain West honors after starting for San Diego State in 2022.
The step back at offensive tackle is one thing, but it becomes even more intriguing for Penn State when you consider what the Nittany Lions have at defensive end. Adisa Isaac, Chop Robinson, Dani Dennis-Sutton, Amin Vanover, and Zuriah Fisher have combined for 13.5 sacks just by themselves — that’s more sacks than Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana have as entire teams. It’s been a position group that has lived up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon them in the preseason and then some.
But those numbers mean nothing if it doesn’t translate against Ohio State. Since the 2016 six-sack game, Penn State has accumulated the following sack totals when playing the Buckeyes:
- 2017: 2
- 2018: 1
- 2019: 3
- 2020: 2
- 2021: 0
- 2022: 2
While some of those were explainable given what Ohio State had on the offensive line, that can’t be the case this season. Penn State has a clear and distinct advantage at defensive end against offensive tackle. That needs to be evident at the Horseshoe on Saturday if the Nittany Lions want to walk out of Columbus with the victory.