COLUMBUS – First, Cincinnati was going to be Ohio State’s biggest test so far this season and that turned into a 42-0 OSU win.
Then Michigan State, with a strong defense and a history of being the Buckeyes’ nemesis, was pumped up as the greatest challenge OSU had faced up to that point and that turned into a 34-10 OSU victory.
After that, Wisconsin was presented as the most dangerous opponent Ohio State had played and maybe the most menacing foe it would see all season. And that game also ended with the Buckeyes winning big, 38-7.
Now it’s Penn State’s turn to be the toughest challenge Ohio State has faced all season.
Is today’s game between No. 2 Ohio State (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) and No. 8 Penn State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) going to be more of the same, where Ohio State dismisses another contender? Or will it become that close game many people predicted against Wisconsin and Michigan State?
The road to the Big Ten championship game goes through this game. If Ohio State wins, it clinches the Big Ten East Division championship. If Penn State wins, all it has to do to be the champion in the East is beat Rutgers next week.
OSU and Penn State both are playing for a chance to be invited to the College Football Playoff. That alone would make this Ohio State’s biggest game so far. But there is more.
Saying a team or player has a chip on its shoulder is one of the most over-used phrases in sports. But Penn State probably has earned the right to use it after watching Ohio State turn what looked like almost certain losses into one-point wins with fourth-quarter rallies the last two years.
On paper, Ohio State has the most talent of any team in the Big Ten. Penn State is probably No. 2 or No. 3 at worst.
If talent were the only factor, OSU might win by the almost three touchdowns the odds makers in Las Vegas say it will. But things like Penn State scoring the winning touchdown against the Buckeyes in 2016 on a blocked field goal show the unexpected has a way of showing up sometimes when these two teams play.
Four match-ups that could determine the outcome of today’s game:
—Quarterbacks. Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Penn State’s Sean Clifford are both first-year starters.
Fields has been brilliant with 31 touchdown passes and only one interception. He also has run for 10 touchdowns and has completed 69 percent of his passes.
Clifford has passed for 22 touchdowns and rushed for five. He has completed 59 percent of his passes. But against the four Big Ten teams with winning records Penn State has played (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana) he has completed only 52 percent of his passes.
If Fields comes close to his season averages and Clifford’s struggles against good teams continue, it could be a game changer.
—Defensive line. Both of Ohio State’s starting defensive ends will return this week. Chase Young is back after missing two games because of an NCAA ruling. The only worse news for Penn State would be if its star receiver K.J. Hamler misses the game because of an injury he suffered last week. OSU also gets Jonathon Cooper back. He has missed most of the season because of injuries.
Penn State has two very good defensive ends in Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, who each have 6.5 sacks. Toney had four sacks in one game last season.
—Running backs. Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins (1,289 yards, 7.0 yards per carry) is having a Heisman Trophy type season but has played so little in the second halves of game that he has not been a big part of the Heisman discussion. He will be facing a Penn State defense that leads the country in fewest yards allowed per carry (2.4 yards).
Penn State has gone with a running back by committee plan. Its top four running backs, Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade, have combined for 1,280 yards.
—Defensive backs. Ohio State leads the Big Ten in overall pass defense (126 yards per game) and has allowed six passing touchdowns. Penn State is No. 12 in the Big Ten in pass defense and has allowed 286 passing yards against Iowa, 276 against Michigan, 339 against Minnesota and 371 against Indiana.
The bottom line is that Ohio State, which ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring average (51.5) and scoring defense (9.8) and is playing at home, has to be favored.
The prediction: Ohio State 35, Penn State 24.