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Football: Looking ahead to Ohio State’s season-defining matchup against Penn State

OSU then-freshman defensive end Nick Bosa (97) and other dejected Buckeyes return to the locker room after their 24-21 loss against Penn State on Oct. 22. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Former Photo Editor

Both No. 6 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) and No. 2 Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) will head to Ohio Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday for their biggest respective challenges to date. With major playoff implications on the line, this matchup will be what defines the remainder of the season for both teams. Here is a preview of the upcoming game.

Ohio State offense vs. Penn State defense

When most people think about Penn State, they immediately direct their attention to the offense led by Heisman hopeful running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley. However, a major component of Penn State’s recent success has come in the form of its defense.

To this point, the defensive efforts have largely been the product of one of the best secondaries in the nation. Led by two Thorpe Award semifinalists, safety Marcus Allen and cornerback Grant Haley, the Nittany Lions’ secondary is tied for the Big Ten lead with nine interceptions on the year while placing second in the conference with only 167.6 passing yards allowed per game. The defense has allowed only three passing touchdowns all season, none in the past two games.

The Buckeyes might not find it much easier to run the ball against Penn State either as the Nittany Lions have allowed opponents an average of just 115.3 yards per game, 17th-fewest in the nation. With a stout defensive front led by defensive ends Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney, Penn State is fourth in the nation with an average of 8.4 tackles for loss and 3.4 sacks per game. Miller has contributed seven tackles for loss and three sacks while Toney has six tackles for loss and 3 1/2 sacks.

Perhaps no one on the defensive side of the football stands out more than linebacker Jason Cabinda. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound senior paces the team in total tackles (53), has forced and recovered a fumble and has recorded four sacks and two tackles for loss.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer spoke about how much of a challenge the defensive front presents Ohio State and did not originally single out any one player in particular, but he made sure to praise the standout linebacker of the Nittany Lions.

“The one guy that steps up big time is [Cabinda],” Meyer said on the Big Ten coaches teleconference Tuesday. “You see him all over the place. But to say one D-lineman is better than the other, I can’t do that. I just think they’re well coached and go extremely hard.”

This will be the most potent offense Penn State faces this season, but at the same time, this will be the most talented defense the Buckeyes have faced to this point. Ohio State is ranked No. 12 in passing offense (326.7 yards per game) and No. 18 in rushing offense (250.6 yards per game), and has seemed to be hitting its stride as of late, outscoring opponents 266-56 over its last five games.

The Buckeyes’ passing attack is unlike those that Nittany Lions have faced this season. It is an offense that derives most of its success from shorter passes and relying on blocking rather than beating the defenders downfield.

Still, neither the Penn State defense nor the Ohio State offense have been sufficiently tested this season, with the exception of Week 2 when the Buckeyes mustered only 16 points against Oklahoma.

Ohio State defense vs. Penn State offense

Penn State’s offense features so many potent weapons, it’s often tough to keep track of them all. Head coach James Franklin’s team has the nation’s best running back in Barkley, a mammoth tight end in Mike Gesicki, who creates all sorts of matchup issues, and a dual-threat quarterback in McSorley, who can make plays with his arm and his legs.

Barkley has been a weapon for Penn State in all areas of the game. The junior running back has a passing touchdown, eight rushing touchdowns, three receiving touchdowns and returned a kickoff for a touchdown. He leads the nation in all-purpose yards with 1,478, as he is Penn State’s leading rusher, receiver and primary kickoff returner.

Junior linebacker Jerome Baker, who could be asked to defend Barkley one-on-one in the passing game, said Barkley is a fun player to watch, and he is excited for the challenge of possibly stopping stop the Heisman favorite Saturday.

“The dude’s a monster. He’s a good back. I just like watching him, honestly,” Baker said Tuesday. “Very excited to go against him because he can do it all. Pass block, run routes, he can definitely run the ball, jump over you, run through you. I’m excited.”

Despite the big-name playmakers on the roster, Penn State’s offensive statistics don’t jump out on the page. The Nittany Lions average only 173.4 rushing yards per game (54th in the nation) and 289.9 passing yards per game (25th), both falling short of the numbers Ohio State has this season despite Penn State being heralded as one of the best offenses in the nation and Ohio State as one that has struggled. Overall, Ohio State is tied for the most points scored per game (47.3) while Penn State is only at 16th with 40.

While some of that will likely be chalked up to strength of schedule, Ohio State has been ranked as the 15th-toughest schedule to date while Penn State is only at 18th, according to Team Rankings.

The struggles for the offense have most likely come from the one surprising weak spot for the Nittany Lions: the offensive line. Entering the year with lofty expectations as a strong, veteran core of players, the group has not done an effective job protecting McSorley. The unit has allowed the 35th-most sacks per game in the nation (2.57) and has surrendered the sixth-most tackles for loss (8.14).

This offensive line will be forced to step up in a big way against a defensive line that has turned offensive linemen into revolving doors all season long. Ohio State averages the 32nd-most sacks per game (2.57) and fifth-most tackles for loss (8.3). What should be an area of concern for Penn State is the fact the Buckeyes’ defensive line is fresh, coming off a bye week following five weeks where each starter was out before the fourth quarter. Not to mention enough depth to allow for essentially four starters at every position.

Redshirt senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis said at this point in the season, he feels well-rested and ready for what will be his team’s most important game this season.

“I think the most plays I’ve played all year, so far, well since Oklahoma, it’s probably like 30, 33, something like that,” Lewis said Tuesday. “It’s been kind of low since then. But it’s just you feel fresh, it’s a lot of reps off your body. Now it’s the meat of the season with a stretch, so now you know you have to play at least 50 plays.”

Penn State’s offense will put up plenty of points, but the play up front could be what separates the Nittany Lions from a win and a loss. The team has plenty of playmakers who can burn the Buckeyes with the ball in their hands, but that will only happen if the line can protect McSorley and provide space for Barkley to break into the secondary.

Ohio State’s secondary can be exploited and has been throughout the year when matched up against an above-average passing offense. But if McSorley is pressured in the pocket, it could be more challenging for him to get off the passes needed to beat Ohio State. In this case, the best passing defense might not come from Ohio State’s secondary, but rather on the defensive line.

Predictions:

Edward Sutelan: Penn State wins 27-24

Colin Hass-Hill: Ohio State wins 45-31

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