Coming off a blowout victory over Nebraska to start the season, the Ohio State Buckeyes head to Penn State today for what was widely considered to be the Big Ten’s game of the year. While the Lions’ loss to Indiana last week may have erased much of the matchup’s allure from a national standpoint, the game still figures to go a long way in deciding the Big Ten East division.
Questions still remain for an Ohio State team that started slow last week, particularly in its ability to both run the ball and stop the run. The Buckeyes improved as the game wore on, but today’s contest figures to answer the question of whether those early issues were simply a matter of rust or true deficiencies that could trip the Buckeyes up at some point.
Ohio State opened the week as 12.5-point favorites over the Nittany Lions, a spread that seems both high, given the venue, and not high enough given the apparent talent disparity of the two teams. Can Penn State pull off another stunning upset in Beaver Stadium? Here is a look at the Penn State personnel that will attempt to do just that.
The Penn State offense is under the direction of a new offensive coordinator in 2020 following the departure of Ricky Rahne, who accepted the head coaching position at Old Dominion in December. To replace Rahne, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin went out and hired Kirk Ciarrocca, who had spent the last three seasons in the same position at Minnesota, while also serving as the quarterbacks coach.
Ciarrocca received plenty of credit last season for the development of Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan, who put together a career year while leading the Golden Gophers to their first 10-win season in some time. Undoubtedly, Ciarrocca’s work with Morgan factored in significantly in his hire at Penn State, where junior quarterback Sean Clifford is at a pivotal point in his development.
Clifford was solid if not spectacular last season, his first as a starter. The Cincinnati native threw 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions a season ago while leading the Lions to an 11-2 record. He also added 350 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, displaying a serviceable ability to burn defenses with his feet when asked.
That ability was on full display a week ago when Clifford carried the ball 17 times for a team-leading 119 rushing yards and a touchdown in the Lions’ overtime loss at Indiana. Clifford might need to shoulder a considerable load in the run game this season in the absence of the Lions’ two best running backs —Journey Brown and Noah Cain —who have both been ruled out for the season.
Left in the backfield is sophomore Devyn Ford, who has now been thrust into a starring role after expecting to be a complimentary piece this season behind Brown and Cain. Ford saw limited carries last season but was the featured running back a week ago, running for 69 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
Up front, Penn State returns a ton of experience from an offensive line that, in 2019, paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged close to 200 yards per game. Three full-time starters return at center and both tackles, and both guards started multiple games for the Lions last season. If Ford can settle into the increased role, which he will have plenty of opportunities to do under Ciarrocca, the Lions’ run game should again be a strength if not quite the juggernaut it was a year ago.
Where the offensive line will need to make its biggest improvements is in its protection of Clifford. Last season, Penn State gave up 32 sacks — five of which came in Columbus — to finish among the worst in the Big Ten in sacks allowed. The unit is off to a good start this season, however, allowing just one sack last week. A much larger challenge awaits them on today in an Ohio State defense that is coming off of a three-sack effort against Nebraska.
If Clifford has time to throw, he will have a couple of steady targets to work with in receiver Jahan Dotson and tight end Pat Freiermuth. The pass-catching duo led Penn State a week ago, combining for 11 catches, 154 yards and two touchdowns. Freiermuth hauled in the second-most passes a season ago behind K.J. Hamler, who is now in the NFL, and will likely make a strong bid at leading the team this season.
Of course, nothing will sink Penn State’s ship on Saturday faster than turning the ball over, something that has already cost it a game this season. Clifford’s two interceptions and backup quarterback Will Levis’ fumble were the only things keeping Indiana in the game last week, and it’s safe to say that a similar inability to protect the football this week would quickly bury the Lions’ chances at an upset.
Much of the talk surrounding the Penn State defense leading up to the season centered around All-American linebacker Micah Parsons, who opted out of the 2020 season and singed with an agent, rendering him unable to opt back in.
Simply put, teams don’t lose a player of Parsons’ caliber and transition smoothly. His loss will be felt, and the matchup the Ohio State offense brings to Happy Valley is just the type of scenario where that loss will be felt the most.
To make matters worse, Penn State was already preparing to start two new linebackers this season, meaning the Lions will be relying on an entirely new group to limit Justin Fields and the Buckeye running backs. Brandon Smith, a top recruit in Penn State’s 2019 class, will need to grow up in a hurry today in order to steady the unit.
Where Penn State could have its most success is in trenches. Despite the loss of Robert Windsor and Yetur Gross-Matos, who were both drafted this spring, the Lions still feature a quality tandem of athletic end rushers in Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh. Toney turned in a monster performance last week, recording seven tackles and two sacks to lead the Lions, and Oweh, who was heavily recruited by Ohio State, will have his coming-out party against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State right tackle Nick Petit-Frere was solid in his first career start last week, but the former five-star recruit will face the biggest challenge of his career to date in lining up against the duo.
In the interior, space-eater Anthony Shelton returns as a starter, and his play will be critical in gumming up an Ohio State running attack looking to break out after a mundane performance last week.
Penn State lost a pair of defensive backs to graduation in John Reid and Garrett Taylor, but they return two veterans in cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and safety Lamont Wade, who was tremendous a season ago in Columbus. Wade recorded eight solo tackles, two of which were for a loss, and a sack in that game. Two new starters in cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and safety Jaquan Brisker will be tested time and time again against Fields and a stable of Buckeye playmakers.
It was a nightmarish start for the Penn State special teams units last week. Returning placekicker Jake Pinegar missed a pair of chip-shot field goals at Indiana, and Dotson, who takes over the punt returning duties left by Hamler, muffed a punt after he was ran into by a teammate. Needless to say, the Lions can’t afford any blunders from their special units.
Nothing ever seems to come easy for Ohio State when traveling to Beaver Stadium, although it has won five of the last six meetings in State College. This will be no normal setting, however, as Ohio State dodges Penn State’s famed “white out” thanks to the ongoing pandemic and the Big Ten’s mandate keeping fans out of stadiums this season.
With no raucous atmosphere or cauldron of noise to potentially draw the two teams closer, it seems the matchup will boil down to whether or not the more talented team executes as such. Under head coach Ryan Day, the Buckeyes have shown no issues in handling their business as needed, and there is little reason to believe anything different happens this week. Ohio State rolls to 2-0 with a 38-20 win over Penn State.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.