Ohio State freshman guard D.J. Carton (3) dribbles the ball down the court in the first half of the game against Nebraska Jan. 14. Ohio State won 80-68. Credit: Cori Wade | Assistant Photo Editor

When the Buckeyes faced the Nittany Lions Dec. 7, they were the No. 6 team in the country taking on a 7-1 squad.

Just more than a month later, the two teams are battling to be in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

No. 21 Ohio State (12-5, 2-4 Big Ten) travels to State College, Pennsylvania, to play Penn State (12-5, 2-4) Saturday. Both schools are wading through a January slog, a combined 1-7 in their past eight games.

“I think it’s — in a lot of ways — our biggest challenge of the year to date, given how we have struggled there in the past,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “How good they are, tough, spirited group, well coached. Athletic.”

In the previous meeting, the Buckeyes put out their largest offensive output — 106 points — since Nov. 18, 2018, and the first time they hung 100 or more on a conference opponent in nearly 14 years. Ohio State shot a sizzling 57 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3.

Since then, inconsistency has been the name of Ohio State’s shooting game. It’s fallen short of 41 percent from the field in five of its eight games between Dec. 7 and Saturday — three times shooting below 33 percent.

Those shooting numbers made a recovery against Nebraska, but now it’s up to the Buckeyes’ guards — who shot 29 percent during the team’s four-game losing streak snapped against the Cornhuskers — to establish some semblance of offensive momentum as the Big Ten schedule marches forward.

“I think our backcourt play is critical for us,” Holtmann said. “You kinda know what you’re gonna get from certain guys on most nights, like [forwards] Kaleb and Andre [Wesson] and Kyle [Young], but I think our guard play is critical.”

Saturday, however, it’s the forwards who could get a shock to the system.

Penn State senior forward Lamar Stevens is the leading scorer on either side at 16.1 points per game, joined by another big man scoring double figures in senior forward Mike Watkins. 

The pair averages 7.1 and 8.3 rebounds, respectively.

It’s a portion of the incredible amount of quality big men in the Big Ten, Holtmann said.

“Never seen the depth of, in particular, five men but four and five men in a league like this. Never,” Holtmann said.

Sophomore guard Myreon Jones is the primary perimeter threat, averaging 13.9 points per game and converting 39 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Ohio State sophomore guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington sat out the game against Nebraska for a violation of team expectations, but Holtmann said both will return for Saturday’s game.

“It’s part of the life of a season, that you have some suspensions and you have some things that happen,” Holtmann said. “I hope it doesn’t happen again, but if it does this year, we’ll address it. I think it’s an opportunity for guys to learn. They’re two kids we care about and we certainly want the best for them.”

They’ll join redshirt junior guard CJ Walker and freshman guard D.J. Carton, who broke through Ohio State’s cold stretch at the position with 31 combined points and nine assists against the Cornhuskers.

Carton’s ups and downs throughout the season are a matter of youth, Holtmann said. He compared Carton’s transition to former Buckeye star forward Keita Bates-Diop, who didn’t receive nearly as much playing time as a freshman.

“D.J.’s played significantly more than [Keita did] for us, as has E.J. [Liddell], and with that has come some trial and error,” Holtmann said. “Some mistakes, some things. But he’s also persevered, and I think he understands. I think defensively he played a really solid game the other day.”

Ohio State and Penn State tip off at noon Saturday.