Coming off an enthralling quadruple overtime victory against Michigan, Penn State heads to Columbus this weekend to take on an unbeaten Ohio State team.
In Bill O'Brien's first trip to Columbus as head coach, Penn State will look to end the Buckeyes' 19-game winning streak and destroy all hopes of a BCS National Championship berth.
2011 was the last time Penn State played at Ohio State, and the Nittany Lions left with a 20-14 victory just weeks after the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal rocked the school. The two teams met last year in State College, and Penn State will look to avenge the 35-23 loss they suffered in that contest nearly a year ago.
Here are five reasons why the Nittany Lions could upset the Buckeyes this weekend.
While I'm sure Penn State would have liked to keep the momentum rolling after the Michigan game, it probably didn't mind an extra week of preparation—and rest.
The absence of a game this past weekend provided Penn State with the opportunity to get healthy. As ESPN's Josh Moyer points out, the bye week came at a key time:
But everyone could use some extra time to rebound after an energy-draining contest like that, especially considering the Nittany Lions only boast approximately 61 scholarship players.
With limited depth due to scholarship reductions by the NCAA, Penn State can't afford many injuries. While they certainly have been preparing for Ohio State in the film room, Bill O'Brien said they took advantage of the time to rest. Via the transcript from his press conference yesterday:
"The big goal of this bye week was to get our guys healthy," he said. "So we probably rested our first and second team guys a little bit more in this bye week and did a little bit more meeting time, a little bit more self scout, things like that."
The extended break between games will help recharge players who were banged up throughout the first six games. The Nittany Lions should be well rested when they play an Ohio State team that's had to fight hard for a victory in each of the last three weeks.
While this reason doesn't deal with the physical side of the game at all, the mental aspect certainly can play a role.
Although they are unbeaten this year and winners of 19 in a row, Ohio State hasn't received much respect. They checked in at No. 4 in the initial BCS standings this week, and Dan Wolken of USA Today believes the Buckeyes don't stand a chance to make the BCS National Championship simply by winning out:
It's quite possible Ohio State, which was 12-0 last season but was operating under an NCAA-mandated postseason ban, could win every game yet again and still not play for a national title. At this point, the Buckeyes' best, and maybe only, hope is for teams in front of them to lose.
It's hard to believe—being on the outside looking in after the success Ohio State has had the past two years—that it's not taking its toll on the program. With Purdue, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan remaining on the schedule after Penn State, the Buckeyes need to make a statement now. In a mediocre conference like the Big Ten, winning simply won't cut it. They need to blow teams out, and knowing this could cause Ohio State to press a bit more.
All of this could certainly work in the Nittany Lions' favor. Ohio State has a lot to prove right now—and little time to do it.
Christian Hackenberg faces his first real road test when he enters Ohio Stadium on Saturday. While the task may seem daunting for a freshman, he can effectively move the ball against Ohio State through the air—especially if Penn State utilizes short passing routes.
Ohio State's pass defense is less than admirable, ranking 79th nationally and giving up an average of 240 yards per game. According to Todd Porter of CantonRep.com, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has not been happy with his team's pass defense so far this year:
What eats at Meyer, who spends most of his time on the offensive side of the ball, is watching teams throw and complete short passes, particularly on first down.
“I told our staff, you know, our defensive staff did a wonderful job stopping the run (against Wisconsin). Northwestern has a fine team, and (Wisconsin) ran all over them,” Meyer said. “We spend a lot of focus and energy on stopping the run game. My challenge to them is without sacrificing that, how do we get the same focus stopping the pass game?”
Ohio State keys in so much on the run sometimes—they're good at defending it though, ranking seventh in the country in rush defense—that there's room in the middle of the defense for a quarterback to work. If O'Brien can expose this weakness through play-calling, Penn State has a chance to move the ball effectively.
Hackenberg could continue to give Meyer fits over his squad's pass defense—the freshman has a 66 percent completion percentage this season on first down.
Staying disciplined when Ohio State runs the read-option might be the biggest key for Penn State if it wants to escape with a win.
Between quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde, Ohio State has two weapons that possess big-play potential on the ground.
At just under 280 yards per game, the Buckeyes boast the 11th best rushing attack in all of college football. When you factor in the read-option, things get complicated.
It's very dangerous when the defense is moving a certain direction and the ball carrier is going the other. As Bill O'Brien pointed out during his press conference yesterday, his defense needs to stick to the game plan that it has laid out. Via the transcript:
"We've got to play hard and play with great effort and do the best we can to keep him in there," he said. "When he gets out, we have to make sure that we understand our rules, our scramble rules when he gets out."
For Penn State to shut down—or at the very least, contain—Miller and Hyde, they'll need their linebackers to stay disciplined in the run game. Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman need to let plays develop before making decisions.
Additionally, Penn State's defensive ends can limit Miller's ability to scramble by keeping him contained in the pocket.
If they can do this, the Nittany Lions should be able to constrict the run just enough to force Meyer's hand at attempting more passes. If that's the case, the advantage shifts to Penn State—Ohio State's pass offense is ranked 81st in the nation, while the Nittany Lions' pass defense is ranked 46th.
Trying to limit the influence of Penn State's tight ends on the game is a tough task that awaits Ohio State.
Just a week ago, Iowa provided an offensive blueprint for how to attack the Buckeyes. Of quarterback Jake Rudock's 19 completions, 11 went to his tight ends—one of which was an 85-yard touchdown.
Although Penn State tight ends have accounted for only 25 percent of the team's total receptions, their targets should increase on Saturday. Outside of Ryan Shazier, the rest of Ohio State's linebacking corps is weak in pass coverage.
As pointed out by Ross Fulton of Eleven Warriors, Ohio State has had its fair share of struggles in defending its opponent's aerial attack, especially in the middle of the defense:
The other primary problem, as Meyer stated, is the underneath coverage from Ohio State's linebackers and star. The Buckeye underneath zone defenders are failing to re-route receivers, get proper depth, and then trigger on throws. As Withers' referenced, the failure to do so is allowing teams to throw vertical seam routes before the safeties can play the football.
The running game could benefit from more multiple tight end sets, too. Penn State could utilize draw plays to open up the second level of Ohio State's defense, since the Buckeyes will have to worry about guys like Kyle Carter and Jesse James bursting off the line of scrimmage.
In both the passing and running games, Penn State's tight ends hold the key to victory. It will be up to Bill O'Brien to make sure they're on the field all night long.