We’re finally just one day away from the game that many Penn State fans have been waiting all year for. Before the season began, the Ohio State game was expected to either make or break the Nittany Lions’ Playoff hopes, and that appears to be the case. Sure, one can imagine a path to the Playoff for a one-loss Penn State team, but with Notre Dame threatening to make a run from outside the major conferences, the margin for error looks even thinner than usual.
The only way for Penn State to guarantee a bid is to win the rest of its games, and this upcoming contest in Columbus should be the last time that the Lions are underdogs in the regular season. The Buckeyes have flown under the radar lately since they haven’t played in a big game since suffering a loss at the hands of Oklahoma in Week 2, but Urban Meyer’s squad is as talented as ever. Blessed with highly experienced quarterback J.T. Barrett and one of the deepest defenses in the country, Ohio State has crushed each of its last five opponents by more than four touchdowns.
The degree of difficulty will be raised considerably when James Franklin brings his No. 2 Nittany Lions to Columbus. After a close call in Iowa one month ago, Penn State has blown out its last three opponents, including a Michigan team that was supposed to pose a greater challenge last week. Will Penn State’s quick-strike offense and stout defense keep rolling along? Or will the Buckeyes ride their own wave of momentum to a season-changing victory?
To get the Ohio State perspective on Saturday’s contest, we talked to Alexis Chassen of SB Nation’s Ohio State blog, Land-Grant Holy Land. Thanks to Alexis for her insight on this all-important matchup.
Black Shoe Diaries: J.T. Barrett has been putting up Heisman-worthy numbers in the passing game since Ohio State’s loss to Oklahoma. Is this the product of improved play, or have the Buckeyes not been challenged by the lower competition?
Land-Grant Holy Land: A little bit of both. The competition over the past few weeks — when Barrett has really seemed to improve — hasn't exactly been the fiercest test of his talent. More so than it being a Barrett problem, the struggles from the first two games of the year can be attributed to adjusting to new coaches (Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day) and still trying to find some confidence and chemistry with his receivers. It was a problem all of last season, with wideouts dropping far too many passes and Barrett trying to do too much to make up for them. This year started out the same, with the team getting a bit of a wake-up call against Oklahoma. The Buckeyes were going to need to play much better and well-rounded offense if they were going to best increasingly good competition. Barrett has finally settled into a nice rhythm, now halfway through his final season, and has receivers who he can trust.
BSD: Since he registered 31 touches in the Indiana opener, freshman tailback J.K. Dobbins has fewer than 20 touches in every game. Do we see more carries for him against Penn State with Ohio State’s title hopes on the line? Also, will he continue to see action in the passing game after a season-high four receptions at Nebraska?
LGHL: With so many offensive weapons — even just including the rushers — it'll be tough for Ohio State to give the ball to Dobbins as often as they'd probably like. Part of the reason is that Barrett can give the ball to Mike Weber in short-yard situations for a quick ground-and-pound first down or tuck the ball and get the yards on a quarterback draw. The other reason is that Dobbins makes the most out of his touches. The yards-after-contact he's able to amass are incredible and will probably be able to replicate that success on some short passes here and there to keep Penn State's defense on its toes. As a player, Dobbins is probably looking to go toe-to-toe with Barkley, so you know the true freshman will be begging for carries on the sideline.
BSD: Barrett likes to spread the ball around, and a whopping 10 different receivers have caught touchdown passes this year. Is Parris Campbell still the lead dog among receivers or has K.J. Hill taken that title with his outstanding performance against Nebraska?
LGHL: I think that Campbell and Hill fill two different roles for the Buckeyes. They're both super tall, but Campbell has been amazing at taking a short pass on the outside down the field for an extra 50 yards or a touchdown. Hill has the ability to be like a Noah Brown for the Buckeyes — someone big enough to win contested passes down field. Fans will just be happy that the receivers are finally making catches at all. Each wide receiver fills a certain niche though which keeps things exciting — and probably a little frustrating for the members of Zone 6, who will have little opportunity to pad their stats. Austin Mack has been great at drawing pass interference penalties fighting for the score, and Terry McLaurin has occasionally looked like the next Devin Smith-esque deep threat. One thing most of the receivers have improved on is their spacial awareness. They've snagged some touchdowns in some very narrow pockets, so their overall growth as a position group should give Buckeye fans something to be happy about.
BSD: Nick Bosa leads the Buckeyes with four sacks and 10 tackles for loss, yet he’s listed as a co-starter with Tyquan Lewis on the depth chart from before the Nebraska game. Do Bosa and Lewis spend a lot of time on the field at the same time, or is that only for obviously passing situations?
LGHL: It sounds super egotistical to say, but Ohio State has so much talent on the defensive side of the ball — especially at the line and with the defensive ends — that they've been rotating players at an impressive rate. The good thing is that there's little to no drop-off from one guy to the next, and they're all impressively scary. Tyquan Lewis has the seniority which leads me to believe the team has him and Bosa listed as co-starters to lend some support behind his future NFL campaign. Bosa is the clear starter of the future, and shouldn't share the spotlight with anyone come next season.
BSD: Damon Webb is tops on the team in both tackles and interceptions. Will he be creeping up towards the line of scrimmage in order to stop Saquon Barkley in this game, or is he better served staying back and trying to contain the deep passing attack?
LGHL: With the defensive front seven the Buckeyes boast, there is little need for Webb to make the rush toward the line, but that's not to say it won't happen. More than anything, Webb and the defensive backs need to work on getting their heads and bodies around to the ball to avoid an afternoon filled with pass interference calls. It's something they've struggled to do early on in the season, but have seen a modicum of improvement the past few weeks. With Trace McSorley's penchant for throwing the ball high and downfield and letting his receivers make the contested catches, the Buckeye secondary is in for a long day.
BSD: Ohio State is favored by a touchdown on Saturday. How do you see the game going for the Buckeyes?
LGHL: I think the Buckeyes somehow manage a victory — though maybe not even by a touchdown. Buckeye Nation will have a serious problem if Ohio State loses twice at home to top-10 teams in one season. It'll be a hard fought 60 minutes with whoever has the ball last making a move for the win.
Thanks again to Alexis for taking the time to answer our questions. For coverage of Ohio State athletics all season long, make sure to check out Land-Grant Holy Land!