When No. 8 Penn State comes to Columbus Saturday to face No. 2 Ohio State, it will be the 15th straight year that at least one of the two Big Ten foes is ranked in the top 25. Of the previous 14 games, Penn State has won just four.
Although the Buckeyes (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) have won two straight against Penn State (9-1, 6-1), the combined margin of victory the past three years is just five points. The Nittany Lions last beat Ohio State in 2016, upsetting then-No. 2 Ohio State 24-21.
“This is a talent-equated game,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “We all know we have been in some games that we have had more talent than some of the other teams we have played. This is a team that the talent equates.”
Behind redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford, the Nittany Lions hold the second-place spot in the Big Ten East. They’ve suffered only one loss, a 31-26 loss at then-No. 17 Minnesota.
The offense goes as Clifford goes. In Penn State’s most impressive win of the season against Michigan, Clifford threw for 182 yards and three touchdowns. In its one loss at Minnesota, he threw 20 incomplete passes and three interceptions in 43 attempts.
On defense, sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons leads the Nittany Lions with 75 total tackles. Penn State holds opponents to 316.2 yards per game, No. 17 in the country.
Penn State is No. 13 in scoring offense, at 36.8 points per game, and No. 7 in scoring defense, allowing 13.5 points per game.
“Micah Parsons is as talented as there is, again, in the conference,” Day said. “They do a good job up front with their front. They mix those guys in.”
This past weekend, the Nittany Lions squeaked by Indiana 34-27 behind three total touchdowns from Clifford and 100 yards rushing from redshirt sophomore running back Journey Brown.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver KJ Hamler has been Clifford’s favorite target this year, as his 791 yards are nearly twice as many as the next leading receiver on the team. Hamler had a career-high 138 yards in 2018’s matchup with Ohio State, including a 93-yard touchdown.
“I think Clifford’s playing really well. Hamler is one of the more dynamic players in the country. I think [sophomore receiver Jahan] Dotson is as good a wide receiver as there is in the Big Ten, and [sophomore tight end Pat] Freiermuth and some of those other guys are really talented as well,” Day said. “So I think you got a skill set over there of guys that can really hurt you.”
Saturday will be sophomore quarterback Justin Fields’ second time facing a top 10 defense in the country this season. In his first go-round against Wisconsin’s No. 6 scoring defense, Fields completed 12 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns and added one rushing score. It was his lowest number of completions and passing yards this year.
“I don’t really get excited. I’m kind of an even-keeled guy, so my emotions don’t really change,” Fields said. “I’m just going into this week like every other week. Same preparation. Same focus at practice.”
On the other side of the ball, junior defensive end Chase Young will return after missing two games for an NCAA bylaw violation. Young brings his 29 tackles and 13.5 sacks against a Penn State offensive line that has allowed 19 sacks on the season.
In the past five seasons, Penn State has 47 combined wins, No. 3 in the Big Ten. Ohio State is No. 1 with 58 and Wisconsin is No. 2 with 50.
Head coach James Franklin is in his sixth season with the Nittany Lions and has won at least nine games in four straight seasons at Penn State.
Ohio State hasn’t won a game by less than 24 points this season, and sits at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings for the second-straight week. This will be its first game against a top 10 team this season.
Though Day said Penn State’s talent is similar to that of the Buckeyes, Ohio State is an 18-point favorite against the Nittany Lions. After two consecutive blowout wins against sub-.500 opponents for the Buckeyes, Penn State will present the strongest challenge yet for an Ohio State team that hasn’t played a close game for four quarters.
The top 10 matchup kicks off at noon Saturday at Ohio Stadium.