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Column: Why Ohio State will beat Penn State

Ohio State freshman running back J.K. Dobbins (2) runs the ball in for a touchdown in the first quarter against Nebraska in Memorial Stadium on Oct. 14. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The Ohio State football team that lost to Oklahoma in the second week of the season would not beat Penn State Saturday afternoon. It would not even be a competitive game.

But the Buckeye team that lost is not the same one that will take the field against the Nittany Lions. Ohio State has improved at every facet of the game over the past six weeks — besides special teams, of course — and will enter the game with a nice mix of momentum, health and energy, as it had last week off.

Ohio State’s steady improvement begins with an offense that in the first couple games of the season looked anything but threatening, despite quarterback J.T. Barrett returning for his fifth year and the addition of heralded co-offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day. Barrett completed just 19-of-35 passes for 183 yards and an interception against Oklahoma.

Since that game, everything on offense changed, none of it happened overnight. With the next five games against overmatched opponents, the Buckeyes slowly added facets to their offense. Now, Ohio State enters its game against Penn State as an offense capable of hitting plays in the pass and run games. It has six receivers who have defined roles, two consistently productive running backs, two improving tight ends and a confident quarterback playing potentially the best football of his collegiate career.

Head coach Urban Meyer praised the Nittany Lions’ defensive aggression. Last week, the unit, which averages the fourth-most sacks per game in the nation, sacked Michigan quarterback John O’Korn seven times. It will not have nearly as much success against an Ohio State line led by center Billy Price and left tackle Jamarco Jones. Last year, Penn State picked apart right tackle Isaiah Prince, pressuring Barrett throughout the game. But even he has looked substantially improved.

Wilson and Day have had two weeks of rest, preparing to attack a defense buoyed by Thorpe Award semifinalists safety Marcus Allen and cornerback Grant Haley. On Wednesday, Meyer called Penn State’s defense the best in the country. With a month and a half of consistent improvement, Ohio State is ready for the task at hand, one they weren’t ready for early in the season.

On the other side of the ball, Ohio State’s defensive line has the potential to make quarterback Trace McSorley’s night difficult. The dual-threat signal-caller combined with running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki and a talented group of wideouts led by DaeSean Hamilton is one of the best skill position groups in the country.

But to Penn State’s detriment, the offensive line is its weakness. That’s a problem when defensive ends Nick Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard are taking their turns rushing McSorley — or all rushing at once.

If the Nittany Lion offensive line can give McSorley a chance to drop back and view the field, Penn State might be dangerous. What was Ohio State’s biggest weakness at the beginning of the year remains just that, as its defensive backfield has not impressed. In the last five games, teams have struggled to put up passing yardage, but that has happened due to their weak passing attacks rather than Ohio State’s marked improvement.

The Buckeyes’ linebackers, led by Jerome Baker, can help cover Gesicki and Barkley. But if McSorley has time in the pocket or can escape pressure, as Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield did successfully, Ohio State could find itself in trouble.

But that scenario will not happen. With two weeks to prepare for its opponent, a home game with a packed crowd and a team out for revenge, the seemingly loose Buckeyes are more than prepared for this top-10 matchup. After Ohio State’s victory at Nebraska, Lewis admitted he and his team had been looking forward to this game for weeks. It’s finally here.

With Barrett at his peak and a defensive front menacing enough to make McSorley uncomfortable enough to get rid of the ball quicker than desired, Ohio State will cruise to a 45-31 victory, stunning those who believe this will be a close game and the people who picked Penn State to take down the lower ranked team.

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