Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Penn State Nittany Lions Complete Game Preview
A week after proving that it maintained its momentum following its second bye in four weeks, the Ohio State football team will head to Happy Valley for a prime-time matchup with Penn State. On the heels of their fourth consecutive blowout victory, the Buckeyes are hoping to make a statement against the Nittany Lions as they continue their push for a potential playoff spot.
Meanwhile, Penn State is looking to breathe new life into its season after suffering back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan. Coming off a bye of their own, the Nittany Lions will be well-rested but appear to have been hampered by the scholarship limitations handed down by their sanctions.
Will Ohio State keep rolling, or will Penn State pick up a much-needed signature? We'll find out on Saturday. But until then, here's everything you need to know about the Buckeyes' battle with the Nittany Lions.
Date: Saturday, Oct. 25
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa.
Spread: Ohio State (-11.5), via Odds Shark
Ohio State Keys to Victory
Run, Ezekiel, Run
Penn State possesses the nation's top run defense, surrendering an average of 60.8 yards per game on the ground. That's a statistic Urban Meyer is well-aware of as he prepares to take on one of the more talented front sevens that the Buckeyes have seen all season.
"Very, very well-coached up front and good personnel," Meyer said of Penn State. "They do a really nice job."
Any success Ohio State finds in the run game will likely coincide with a big day from running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was named the Buckeyes' Offensive Player of the Game with his 97-yard, one-touchdown performance against Rutgers.
Ohio State will need another big day from its sophomore tailback in order to overcome the stout Nittany Lions front, which will attempt to feast on a still improving Buckeyes offensive line.
Due to its scholarship limitations, a small lead against Penn State can quickly turn into a big one, as Ohio State learned a season ago. Beating down the Nittany Lions by a score of 63-14, the Buckeyes had their way with Penn State during its trip to Columbus last year in a game that appeared to be over before it even really got started.
"I think we played very well that day," Meyer said of last season's game. "Started rolling downhill on them."
Ohio State would obviously benefit from another fast start on Saturday in an effort to use the Nittany Lions' depth—or lack thereof—against them. The way that the Buckeyes offense has been playing as of late, with four consecutive performances of having scored at least 50 points, that's certainly in the cards, especially considering that Meyer believes the unit's best work is still ahead of it.
"Offensively we could have played a lot better. That was not one of our great days," Meyer said after the Buckeyes totaled 585 yards against Rutgers. "We expect more."
Penn State Keys to Victory
Do It Defensively
It's not just Penn State's rush defense that's been impressive for the Nittany Lions, as the unit as a whole ranks sixth in the nation in scoring, surrendering 15.2 points per game. That should make for an interesting matchup against an Ohio State offense that currently ranks fourth in the country with 46.5 points per game and still has room for improvement.
"The last two weeks, we haven't played as good offensively up front as we expect," Meyer said. "That will really surface this week."
How Penn State handles the highly powered Buckeyes offense should go a long way toward determining its success on Saturday, as the Nittany Lions are yet to be tested by a unit as talented as Ohio State's. With one of the nation's best defenses squaring off against one of the country's best offenses, something's going to have to give, as the outcome of the game should be determined when the Buckeyes have the ball.
While Ohio State's situation with bye weeks this season has been unique, so has Penn State's, as the Nittany Lions will have gone from Sept. 27 to Oct. 25 with just one game in between. As a result, Meyer knows he can expect the unexpected on Saturday, with Penn State coming off two weeks to prepare for the Buckeyes.
"Prepare for something unusual," Meyer said. "That bye week gives you a chance to work on some things."
Given the limitations its scholarship situation presents, it may take James Franklin reaching into his bag of trick plays for Penn State to pull off an upset over the Buckeyes. But Meyer also expects the Nittany Lions to stick with what they do best, as they've already found themselves in close contests against the likes of UCF, Rutgers and Michigan.
"I don't think they're holding anything because they've had a couple big games," Meyer said. "But we spend four or five minutes talking about that, move on."
Ohio State Players to Watch
The Big Ten's reigning Offensive Player and Freshman of the Week, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, put together another stellar showing against Rutgers, totaling 368 yards of total offense and five touchdowns against the Scarlet Knights. Meyer, however, believes his emerging star quarterback could have played better, as he missed a few opportunities throughout his latest start.
"I like the way he started. Someone told me he went nine for nine or something to start the game. We like that. That's obviously very good," Meyer said. "But he misfired on a couple balls. Threw a ball behind Evan Spencer, missed on Dontre Wilson on a touchdown. A couple plays, but that happens."
Heisman buzz appears to be building for Barrett, who leads the Big Ten in both total offense and passing touchdowns, despite the Buckeyes having just played six games at this point in the season. It will be worth watching how he handles the atmosphere of Happy Valley, but his coaches don't appear to have any worries about the redshirt freshman handling himself.
"More comfortable now than several weeks ago," Meyer said of Barrett's readiness on the road. "That's one of the top five atmospheres we ever played in. We can expect that same type of reception. We'll be ready."
An emerging player in the Ohio State offense, Jalin Marshall put together perhaps his most impressive outing of the season last Saturday, recording three receptions for 58 yards. As Buckeyes wide receivers coach Zach Smith explained, Marshall is beginning to transform into the player he was expected to be when he arrived in Columbus from Middletown, Ohio, a season ago.
"He's a guy we really wanted to get involved," Smith said. "Coming into the year, we really had high expectations and coming into his career there were high expectations. He's really worked hard and is starting to try to live up to those."
A redshirt freshman, the key to the rest of Marshall's season will be consistency and not piecing together solid performances here and there. Last Saturday was a start for the former 4-star prospect, but he'll need another big game against Penn State to prove that his performance was far from a fluke.
"He's a guy over the last five weeks or so that has earned more respect and more touches," Smith said. "We're trying to figure out more ways for him to get the ball because he's a dynamic player."
Penn State Players to Watch
A former 5-star prospect and the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Christian Hackenberg came into 2014 with high expectations but has endured somewhat of a sophomore slump. While his 1,637 passing yards are good for the third most in the Big Ten, just five times has he found the end zone compared to the seven interceptions he's thrown this season.
Nevertheless, Meyer is well-aware that the Nittany Lion offense starts with Hackenberg, who is one of the more talented quarterbacks Ohio State will face this season. That means Saturday will be another test for an Ohio State pass defense that is improving but still unproven at this point in the season.
"Obviously we've got a lot of respect for their big quarterback," Meyer said of the 6'4", 234-pound Hackenberg. "He's a tremendous player."
And while Franklin admitted his young quarterback has struggled as of late, he's also noticed a strong desire from Hackenberg as he attempts to bounce back from his recent woes.
"[Christian] is like a lot of us, he's a competitor," Franklin said to The Associated Press (via CSN Philly). "He wants us to play well and he wants us to win. He's frustrated, and we're all looking at ourselves at things that we can do better."
A big reason why Penn State's defense has been as successful as it has been this season has been the play of middle linebacker Mike Hull, who leads the Nittany Lions with 64 tackles—nearly three more than anybody else on the Penn State roster. On Monday, Meyer had high praise for the senior linebacker, comparing him to former Wisconsin great Chris Borland.
"They've got a tough guy, a Borland-like middle linebacker," Meyer said. "He's really active."
With Ohio State attempting to improve its fairly balanced offense, it will be interesting to see if the Buckeyes can find a way to neutralize Hull. The 6'1", 232-pounder also presents an intriguing option as a spy for Barrett, who rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers last Saturday.
What They're Saying
Asked if Ohio State's 56-17 route of Rutgers was a statement, Meyer managed to dance around the question. But he did admit the chance to make a splash was coming against the Nittany Lions, given all that would be at stake this Saturday.
"Next week we all know what's coming down the barrel, prime-time game, in a stadium with 110,000 people," Meyer said. "That's going to be a great evaluator."
But while Meyer's been hesitant to praise a relatively young Buckeyes roster, he admitted that overall, he's been pleased with what he's seen from it so far this season. For that, he credited his players and his coaching staff, who seem to have created a unique chemistry in the first half of the season.
"I love coaching this team," Meyer said. "I like the culture of the program right now. I like the players, the way they're being coached. I love their responses. You enjoy coming to work every day when you have a team like that.
As for Penn State, Franklin admitted that his team has endured some struggles as of late, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. In their last two outings, the Nittany Lions have totaled a combined 19 points, which the first-year Penn State head coach knows won't get the job done against the Buckeyes.
"We have to play faster, we're not playing as fast as we can right now," Franklin said to The Associated Press (via CSN Philly). "And aggressively. That's really all three phases. I think special teams and offense are what everybody's focused on right now, but I think in all three phases we can play faster and more aggressive. Being able to consistently run the ball on offense and being able to consistently protect our quarterback is probably our biggest challenge right now."
While Penn State has as good of a defense as Ohio State has faced to this point in the season, it's hard to envision the Buckeyes not maintaining momentum with an offense that has been firing on all cylinders since their Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech. Ohio State is simply a different team today than the one that lost at the hands of the Hokies, and I expect that to remain apparent on Saturday.
Much like last year's game in Columbus, I see the Buckeyes going up big early and never looking back. Transitive property may not relate to football, but the Nittany Lions' losses to Northwestern and Michigan were telling and make it hard to believe they're capable of knocking off Ohio State.
The only factor I could see standing in the Buckeyes' way is the Happy Valley atmosphere, which is quite the crowd at night. But like Ohio State defensive line coach and longtime Penn State assistant Larry Johnson said, scoring points has a way of leading to silence, which I expect to be the case on Saturday.
Final score: Ohio State 52, Penn State 13
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.