Saturday marks Penn State’s biggest game of the season as they travel to Ohio Stadium to take on the No. 3 Buckeyes. Ohio State, per usual, is off to a great start. But, things have not been as smooth as usual in terms of the team’s overall health and offensive play. Just like last year, Matt Tamanini of our sister site Land-Grant Holy Land dropped by to answer some questions about the Buckeyes ahead of Saturday’s showdown.
1. I reviewed some questions that I sent your way last year where you mentioned the play of Ohio State’s defense with then first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Now in year two under Knowles, let us know about that defense, its strengths, and how it might look to attack first-year starting quarterback Drew Allar.
You often hear about units taking huge steps forward in their second years under new coordinators, and through the first six games of the season, that has been true for the Buckeyes’ defense. Of course, all of the normal caveats apply to the fact that outside of Notre Dame, they haven’t really played a truly competent offense, but, the OSU D has been pretty solid thus far.
The big issue with Knowles’ unit last season was the fact that it was plagued by giving up big plays. They allowed 25 of 30 or more yards and 18 of 40+ yards in 2022. However, this season, Ohio State has only allowed four plays of 30+ yards and has yet to give up a play from scrimmage of 40 or more yards. So that alone has proven to be majorly significant.
Of course, that’s not the only change we’ve seen from the Buckeyes. Because they are no longer giving up nearly as many big plays, opposing offenses are staying on the field longer. Ohio State has had what some would call a bend-but-don’t-break defense through six games, although Knowles has said how much he hates that term. So, offenses can string together long drives — as Penn State has done a lot this season — but the Buckeyes have had a tendency to bow up eventually.
The defense is far less blitz focused this season, which is a big reason why they are not giving up as many big plays. Traditionally, Knowles has been a very aggressive play-caller, trying to use pressure as a way to combat talent deficiencies. However, last season, those blitzes led to a lot of the big plays allowed because the secondary was inexperienced and significantly injured all season.
Now that the corners and safeties are arguably two of the best position groups on the team, Knowles has dialed back the extra pressure and is primarily trusting his defensive line to do. They don’t get home nearly as much as most Ohio State fans would like, but they do have a tendency to create just enough chaos to make quarterbacks uncomfortable.
2. Ohio State has had some skill players, notably RB TreVeyon Henderson and WR Emeka Ebuka, miss games of late. What’s the health status of the Buckeyes, especially on offense, heading into Saturday’s game? What’s your expectation with if they’ll play, how much they’ll play, and who can step up if guys are out?
As of Wednesday night’s practice, it appears that all of OSU’s injured running backs — TreVeyon Henderson, Chip Trayanum, and Miyan WIlliams — practiced and it is assumed that at least Henderson and Trayanum will play. Henderson likely could have played last week against Purdue, but was kept out with an eye on this week’s game, and it is believed that Trayanum was in concussion protocol after last week’s game, but since Ohio State shares nearly no information about injuries, we can’t be sure.
In terms of Emeka Egbuka, he did practice on Wednesday, but appeared to be fairly hobbled. Afterward, Marvin Harrison Jr. said that Egbuka was dealing with a fairly severe ankle sprain, but is working through it. If at this point I had to guess, I would give it a 40-ish% chance that he plays this and a 15% chance that he is close to 100%. If he doesn’t play, look for senior leader Xavier Johnson and true freshman Carnell Tate to get his reps.
The other injury to watch out for is starting cornerback Denzel Burke who has probably been OSU’s best defensive player this year. He got hurt against Purdue and was not seen coming off the field of Wednesday’s practice — which doesn’t mean that he wasn’t practicing, but that seems unlikely. At this point, I would give Burke maybe a 15% chance to play, so they will likely rearrange how and where No. 2 corner Davison Igbinosun and nickel corner Jordan Hancock play with true freshman Jermaine Matthews getting some added run as he did following Burke’s injury last week.
3. Penn State is going to try to attack quarterback Kyle McCord - and Ohio State’s offensive line - with waves of pressure. How has McCord and that offensive line progressed over the first half of the season?
Ohio State’s offensive line is, without question, the biggest weakness on the team. Fortunately for them — for the sake of this question — their issues manifest far more in run blocking than they do in pass protection. However, this still-gelling unit has not exactly been stellar in pass pro either. They have allowed 10 sacks through six games, which puts them in the middle of the Big Ten this far.
For his part, McCord has done pretty well with pressure in his face. He doesn’t seem to be afraid to step up into a hit if he needs to in order to get a ball off, but against Purdue last week, he did show a tendency to throw off his back foot, which is something that we hadn’t seen from him yet. It generally didn’t hurt him, but the Purdue defense is a far cry from what he will see this weekend, so if he doesn’t make that correct in his mechanics, it could come back to bite him.
4. Ohio State has the best win in the Big Ten at this point, that last-second rally in South Bend. What specifically did your fanbase learn about the Buckeyes in that situation to carry into the first of the Big Ten’s three-game round robin for the conference title?
I think it gave fans a bit more confidence that this team could pull together and figure things out even if they weren’t perhaps as talented as they have been in recent years — at least on the offensive side of the ball. I think that game gave fans a lot of the same vibes that they had during OSU’s 2002 national championship season; a team led by its defense that had a talented, but flawed offense, that just found a way to win games when its back was up against the wall.
From a roster construction standpoint the 2002 and 2023 teams are very different, but in terms of vibes, they have felt similar. But on a more tangible level, I think that it showed fans that Kyle McCord — who has not nearly won over the entire fanbase yet — has the mental fortitude to engineer a drive of that magnitude. He was far from perfect on that drive, in fact, he was only 5-for-13 with at least one dropped interception on the possession.
But, he figured it out. He was biggest on third and fourth down making some absolutely unbelievable conversions when the game was on the line. I think it also proved that Ryan Day does still know how to call an offense to highlight his best players, which is something that has been severely lacking for the majority of the last two or three seasons outside of a handful of high-profile exceptions.
5. Do Ohio State fans hate Big Noon Fox games as much as the Penn State fanbase? And any keys or predictions for this one on Saturday?
From a time of day perspective, yes, I think so. I don’t tend to mind them as much, because it means that I can enjoy the rest of the day or wallow in my sorrow for the rest of the day without the nerves of a prime time game hanging over my head.
However, while Buckeye fans seem to hate the noon kicks, for some reason they really like having games called by Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt. Personally, I am not a fan of the announcing team, but I have been told many times that I am in the minority there. One thing I will say, love them or hate them, Gus and Joel have risen to the status of being able to make a game feel important just by being on the call, so I understand their appeal, especially in a post-ESPN broadcasting world.
In terms of keys, I think it will be pretty standard. From an Ohio State perspective, if the offensive line is able to open up holes for the running game (which in term makes it harder to focus on stopping the pass), then that will make it pretty tough to stop the offense.
If the defensive line is able to hurry Drew Allar and force him into some uncomfortable throws, then I think that will go a long way. I assume that Penn State is going to get its fair share of yards on the ground, so if the Buckeyes can at least make them mostly one dimensional, that should give them a much better chance to slow down the Nittany Lions’ offense.
In terms of a prediction... I honestly don’t know. I think all of the projections are leaning very heavily on this being a defensive battle, but I think there will be more points scored than they are anticipating — in no small part due to the fact that both teams have yet to face offenses of this caliber yet.
So, while fully acknowledging my scarlet and gray colored glasses, I will go 31-27 in favor of Ohio State — though I do reserve the right to change that pick based on injury information!
There you go - there’s plenty of information ahead of Saturday’s game and you can check out Land-Grant Holy Land for coverage of the Buckeyes.