On paper, Penn State isn’t much of a match for Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes have more talent on both sides of the ball as well as a very experienced quarterback. However, when the two teams meet in State College this Saturday night, the Lions will have the intangibles on their side. Not only is Penn State riding a two-game winning streak with an extra week to prepare for this game, but it will be played at night with a raucous crowd in attendance. There’s a good chance that won’t be enough to make up for the gap in talent, but stranger things have happened.
In order to figure out if there are any weaknesses that Penn State can exploit in the Buckeyes, we asked Ohio State writer E.L. Speyer of Ohio State blog Land-Grant Holy Land some questions about the undefeated team from Columbus.
Black Shoe Diaries: Almost every year, Penn State and Ohio State play under the lights on national television. Do Ohio State fans get as jacked up for this game as Penn State fans, or is ESPN just trying to trick us into believing that this is a premier rivalry game?
Land-Grant Holy Land: It probably depends on the age of the Ohio State fan you ask, given that Penn State’s national relevancy, from a football standpoint, has taken a hit due to the Sandusky scandal. Ohio State’s rivalry with Michigan is so fierce that any other rivalry feels less important in comparison, regardless of competitive balance.
With that said, the familiarity between these two programs shouldn’t be overlooked. In the era of 14-team conferences the irregular matchups against teams from the opposite division make those games feel almost like non-conference affairs. Wisconsin, for instance, commonly gave Ohio State all it could handle in the 2000s, but after last weekend’s close contest the two aren’t scheduled to play again until 2019.
The yearly matchup between Ohio State and Penn State will likely not be viewed as a premier rivalry by Buckeye fans until the Nittany Lions can threaten as a legitimate contender for the B1G East title, but even now it’s viewed as a premier challenge, especially when the game is played in front of a white-out crowd in Happy Valley.
BSD: The Buckeyes are considered one of the youngest teams in major college football, but their quarterback is one of the most experienced in the country. How is J.T. Barrett’s leadership important to this team, and how has he improved since last year, when he averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt compared to this season’s 7.9?
LGHL: Last year was just a weird season in so many ways, with the quarterback competition between Barrett and Cardale Jones underlining all of the Buckeyes’ offensive struggles.
From the start of spring camp this was unquestionably J.T.’s show, really for the first time in his career. Remember, even as a freshman in 2014, when he was named conference Player of the Year, he wasn’t slated to start until Braxton Miller hurt his shoulder merely two weeks before the season opener.
With such a young group surrounding him, Barrett’s ability to lend a steady hand is vital to this team’s success. That was demonstrated perfectly a week ago when the entire team, including Barrett, struggled in the first half against Wisconsin, only for the quarterback to bounce back with confidence to dominate throughout the second half and overtime.
BSD: Speaking of Barrett, he carried the ball more than 20 times in each of Ohio State’s last two games. Do you worry about him holding up physically over the course of the season? Should Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner try to get the ball into the hands of Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel more often?
LGHL: One of the most common complaints among Ohio State fans is that Meyer runs Barrett too much. This hand-wringing is as much a testament to Ohio State’s spoiled fan base — where fans want not only to compete on a national level, but also dictate the style in which the team plays — as it is a legitimate concern.
Meyer has a reputation for being an offensive mastermind, but in truth he can be a very conservative coach. When games are tight it’s common to see him use the quarterback run more than any other play, but with a 56-4 record at Ohio State can you really argue with him?
With that said, an injury to Barrett is absolutely a concern. No quarterback has survived an entire season in Meyer’s offense while at Ohio State, and Barrett himself fell victim to injury on a QB run against Michigan in 2014. 21 carries against Wisconsin was necessary, but it’s troubling when the quarterback has to run the ball 26 times against a team like Indiana.
I look for the coaches to try to win the game first with its perimeter playmakers, most notably Samuel, who can hurt Penn State as a runner and a receiver. But if that doesn’t get the job done, then prepare for a heavy dose of QB run.
BSD: Samuel is the only Ohio State receiver averaging more than three catches per game this season. Are the Buckeyes working to get more targets for Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown, or is this unit content to grind its opponents to dust with the running game?
LGHL: That’s an interesting stat, and one that illustrates the fact that Ohio State has had trouble pushing the ball downfield all season, and even dating back to last year with Barrett as a passer. Some of the attention definitely needs to be directed toward the receivers group, which dropped a number of potential big plays last weekend. The Buckeyes currently rotate as many as 10 receivers, and it’s possible that a shorter rotation would allow for better chemistry between Barrett and his pass-catchers.
If Ohio State shows improvement in the passing game, Noah Brown will be the reason why. Samuel and Wilson are both converted tailbacks, and many of their targets come on swing passes as an extension of the running game. Brown has the look of an NFL split end, but needs to show more consistency, especially between the 20s.
BSD: Ohio State’s defense is third in the nation with 12.8 points allowed per game, and yet the group features zero senior starters. Is the defense only going to get better as the year wears on? How does freshman defensive end Nick Bosa compare to his older brother Joey? The kid already has three sacks despite not being listed as a starter on the depth chart.
LGHL: It could be argued that Bosa and Jalyn Holmes, both listed as backup defensive ends, have been Ohio State’s best edge rushers this season. Robert Landers, also a backup, has been the Buckeyes’ most disruptive interior lineman as well. And that’s not to knock the Ohio State starters, it’s just a testament to the depth Larry Johnson has along the defensive line.
As that depth develops the OSU defense will of course develop as a whole as well, and no one has a higher ceiling along the defensive front than Nick Bosa, who’s looking more and more like his brother every week.
BSD: Ohio State is favored by 20 points on Saturday. How do you see the game going for the Buckeyes?
LGHL: It’s hard to say. If you asked me to predict this game after Penn State was embarrassed at Michigan a few weeks ago, I would have called for a similar rout by the Buckeyes. But the Nittany Lions have been playing better each week, and the 24-point win over a better-than-expected Maryland squad was impressive. The Buckeyes are coming off an emotional, draining road win against Wisconsin. Penn State has had two weeks to prepare.
Against Wisconsin, Ohio State struggled for most of the game to stifle the Badgers’ rushing attack, and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley might be the best back that the Buckeyes’ defense has faced to date. As a freshman Barkley ran for 194 yards last year in Columbus, and is coming off a breakout 202-yard performance against Maryland two weeks ago.
I look for Penn State to relentlessly run Barkley against the Ohio State front, hoping to shorten the game. But on the other side of the ball I see Barrett and the offense building off their second half success against Wisconsin. Ohio State wins, but doesn’t cover.
Thanks again to E.L. Speyer for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to keep reading Land-Grant Holy Land to stay up to date on the Buckeyes all season long.