We’re not talking about October 22, 2016. We all know how that night ended. Grant Haley took a Marcus Allen blocked field goal to the house, the Nittany Lions won 24-21, defeating the number two Ohio State, turning their season around for the better. In fact, the Nittany Lions have only lost once since that game, the heartbreaking Rose Bowl loss to USC. They remain undefeated on the season, and have toppled the top defense in the country. It was a defining victory for the Nittany Lions, and one we’ll likely not forget any time soon.
But, and there are a handful of caveats in this matchup, things are vastly different this weekend. First and foremost, the landscape flips entirely as Penn State will travel to Columbus to play in The Shoe. The home town atmosphere of last season transforms into a hostile environment on the road. The roles are effectively flipped in this matchup compared to 2016. Last year, the Buckeyes were undefeated and the number two team in the country, while Penn State was 4-2 and unranked. The emotional “up” for that game was unchartable, as the Nittany Lions wanted to do nothing more than to come out and prove they could hang with the best teams in the country.
This season, the roles are reversed, as Penn State is undefeated and the number two team in the nation. There is far less disparity in the rankings, as Ohio State sits just four spots back of Penn State at number six. They suffered just one loss this season at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners. But the mantra remains relatively unchanged. It’s an “underdog”, and I put underdog in quotes because the Buckeyes are actually favored in this one, looking to knock off one of the eight remaining undefeated teams. a win for Ohio State would even the playing field and force the Nittany Lions to hope for a Michigan victory in the final week of the season against the Buckeyes to take the Big Ten East Division.
This has, once again, become a rivalry game. Upon reemerging in the mid-2000’s, the Nittany Lions held some of the fiercest matchups with the Buckeyes that we’ve seen in recent college football history. Just look back to 2005, when Tambi Hali forced a game sealing fumble of Troy Smith. But don’t be fooled. For many years, this wasn’t much of a rivalry at all. I equate this one to the big brother holding the head of his little brother at arm’s length will the little brother unsuccessfully swings, coming up short every time. To steal a term from Michigan football, Penn State has been little brother for much of this series. Ohio State tends to concern itself primarily with Michigan, their true rival. But the last two seasons have the making of an intense, budding rivalry between the two bordering state schools. I’d expect the two teams to come out and try to punch each other in the mouth early to gain the upper hand, just as Penn State did to Michigan last week.
The Buckeyes are coming off a well deserved bye this past weekend after taking it to five consecutive opponents since dropping the second game of the season to Oklahoma. Over the last five weeks, Ohio State has scored 266 points, the most in the country over that stretch, while allowing just 56. The inferior schedule led to this lopsided effort, but so did the superiority of the Buckeys as a whole. Quite frankly, the 38 points scored by the team against Army the week after losing was low by my assumptions. I more anticipated the scoring outburst of the next four weeks, when the team dropped at least 54 every week against UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska. The Buckeyes are rested and anxious to get this one under way to prove their clout against the Nittany Lions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is this is a red circle game. You can bet the Buckeyes took a big red sharpie and circled this date on the calendar about 50 times. They know how big of a revenge game this one could be the team. It would do so many things to the college football world. It would effectively end the Nittany Lions’ chances at a playoff birth. It would propel the Buckeyes to the top of the East division standings with only Michigan State parallel to them. It would likely allow the committee to justify the Buckeyes jumping both Penn State and Wisconsin back into the top four. This game hold huge implications on the outcome of the Big Ten. Much like this is a put away game for the Nittany Lions, this is a catch up game for Ohio State.
There’s no denying this team runs through one player: J.T. Barrett. Barrett seems to transcend time. It’s as if he has been at Ohio State for far too long now. What’s eve more incredible to think about are his predecessors and how long ago it was they were at the helms. Braxton Miller seems like eons ago and Cardell Jones seems to become an afterthought. There’s no denying this is Barrett’s team. Here is a list of the records Barrett holds in his illustrious collegiate career:
- Most TD’s in a season in the Big Ten
- OSU record for career comp, TD, total TD
- OSU record for season comp, TD, 200 yrd games, QB rating, total TDs
Those are incredibly impressive figures for one quarterback in just four years of eligibility. So far, Barrett has been sensational this season, throwing for 1838 yards, 21 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s completing exactly two thirds of his passes, the best completion percentage of his career.
Of course, Barrett isn’t just a threat through the air. In the RPO offense that Ohio State runs, one eerily similar to Penn State with one large exception, in that Barrett pulls the ball more in power formations, while it seems that Penn State runs more misdirections, Barrett thrives. He’s carried the ball 70 times this year for an additional 359 yards and five scores. He’s extremely difficult to bring down, whether it’s in the pocket or after he’s escaped, as he stands at 6’2″ and 220 pounds.
The running game, especially that through the RPO, has been deadly for the Buckeyes since Urban Meyer took over as head coach. It’s a plug and place system, too, meaning one guy graduates or goes to the NFL and the next is ready to step into his role with no hitches. We’ve seen it at running back for years now. When Carlos Hyde departed Columbus for the NFL, Ezekial Elliott moved right in and became a household name. Then, last year, it was Mike Weber’s turn to do the same, as he rushed for over 1000 yards on 182 carries, finding the endzone nine times. But this year has been a little bit different. Very infrequently would you see a 1000 yard rusher get semi-usurped from the starting role, but that’s exactly what happened. This year, true freshman J.K. Dobbins has produced exactly 100 carries thus far, rushing for 775 yards and five scores. Granted, over the last three weeks, Weber has begun to chew into some of those carries a bit, as he’s rushed the ball 41 times to Dobbins’ 31 times. So a changing of the guard may be turning back around, but it’s no certainty. Much like last week against Michigan, expect to see a running back by committee approach, as Meyer gives the bulk of the carries to the hot hand against a stout Penn State front seven. Add in the fact that Weber didn’t play in two games, the average touches per game is slightly more equal. Weber is averaging 9.6 carries per game while Dobbins is getting 14.2 touches a game.
Ohio State has always been known as a team that distributes the ball fairly evenly. Last season, Curtis Samuel was the leading pass catcher for the Buckeyes, lining up in the slot and out of the backfield. He caught 74 balls in 2016. The yer prior, it was Michael Thomas. Before that, Devin Smith led the way. Catch the pattern here? The receiving core is always a crap shoot and often spread evenly. This year, the team has eight different receivers with double digit catches. Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill lead the way with 28 catches a piece, but the yardage separation is great. Campbell is a stretch receiver who racked up over 400 yards through the air and added two touchdowns, while Hill is the team’s medium route guy, having recorded 274 yards, scoring three times. The leading receivers in terms of touchdowns are Johnnie Dixon and Binjimen Victor, who each have four scores. Victor has just 18 catches this year, meaning he’s scored on almost a quarter of his receptions. Dixon has just 10 catches, but is second in the team in yards per catch at 27.6. In total, ten different players have caught a touchdown pass this season, making the Buckeyes extremely difficult to scheme around, as they can hurt your defense in so many ways.
Flip to the defensive side of the ball, where the Buckeyes have been stout this season. The team ranks 15th in yards per game allowed, as they give up just 305 total per game. The front seven is led by Nick Bosa, the next great Bosa defensive end to come through Ohio State. Through seven games this year, Bosa leads the Buckeyes with four sacks. He’s also added 18 tackles, including ten for a loss. This is a team that puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks from all different angles at all different times of the game. They’ve posted 17 sacks this year. They also do an excellent job of getting off the field on third down. The defense is giving up less than 30% of the third down conversions they face, good for 17th in the nation. The staple of the Ohio state defense, however, might be the bend, but don’t break mentality. The team is sixth in college football in percentage of opponent’s red zone trips that end in points scored. In 17 red zone trips this season, opposing offense have scored just 11 times, including ten touchdowns. Penn State ranks eighth in this statistical category, two thirds of their opponents red zone trips to be successful. There are actually two teams, Utah State and Georgia Tech, that have yet to stop an opponent once they get into the red zone.
This is going to be a heavy weight bout for the ages. These two teams really do not like each other, and there is no doubt that last season looms large for both teams, not just Ohio State. The line for this game has settled somewhere between Ohio State being a six or seven point favorite, which likely should tell you something right there. I think that number is high, but Vegas is generally right on top of these things. I made a prediction for this game in the beginning of the year, and as things stand now, I’m sticking with it. While this should be a close game, and I don’t believe Ohio State will cover that immense spread for two teams so closely matched, I will take the Buckeyes to knock of Penn State for the first time all season.
Final Prediction: Ohio State 27 Penn State 23
Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports