COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State coach Ryan Day knows it’s been a unique season for his undefeated and second-ranked Buckeyes, who have routed six opponents by more than 40 points en route to scoring the most points and allowing the fewest of any FBS team.
He also knows that the challenge coming Saturday at Ohio Stadium from Penn State (No. 8 College Football Playoff ranking, No. 9 Associated Press), the Buckeyes’ first top-10 foe this season, will be unlike any his team has seen to this point.
“This is a talent-equated game,” Day said this week.
“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 talent equates. So when that happens, it goes back to discipline; it goes back to fundamentals; it goes back to toughness — all of those things that come into play when your talent no longer matters.
“So those are the things and we’ve got to do a good job putting a good game plan together, let the guys play, and then prepare them to go. Then the team that’s more prepared will win the game.”
It’s difficult to judge if this game, which will give the winner a leg up on a possible College Football Playoff berth, matches teams with equal talent.
The oddsmakers don’t think so, having made Ohio State an 18-point favorite. The Buckeyes have put up some crazy numbers, outscoring their opponents by 318-38 in the first half. Quarterback Justin Fields, a former Penn State commit, has been responsible for 41 touchdowns — 31 passing, 10 running — and has thrown one measly interception.
Penn State coach James Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference that the Buckeyes boast “probably the most talented roster we’ve watched on tape, definitely this year, maybe since we’ve been here.” He said the next day after practice that it was “hard to be definitive about something like that” but called it “a gut feeling.”
“Just when you watch the tape and you see the length and you see the athleticism and you see the production, it’s hard to argue with it,” Franklin said. “It’s up there. It’s in the conversation. They’ve put together an impressive roster and they’re playing at a high level right now, and obviously Justin’s come in and changed them. I think he’s taken it to another level for them.”
There’s little arguing that Penn State has played the Buckeyes tougher than anyone else over the last three seasons, having won, 24-21, in 2016 and losing by one point (39-38, 27-26) in each of the last two years.
In falling short last season, Franklin gave an impassioned postgame speech about how his team needed to sacrifice and put in the work to become an elite program. The Lions finished 9-4 last year but have surprised some observers by starting 9-1 this season behind first-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford.
They still have some issues, however, with performance and consistency, two traits that will have to improve under a harsh national spotlight at The Shoe if they want to pull off the upset.
The secondary allowed an 82% completion rate and 710 yards the last two weeks by Minnesota and Indiana. The pass rush forced 10 sacks against Purdue but has just eight in the five games since. Missed tackles continue to be a problem.
On offense, the Lions have seen a lack of production from wide receivers not named KJ Hamler or Jahan Dotson, and Hamler is questionable for Saturday after leaving last week’s Indiana game in the first quarter.
So even if you feel the Nittany Lions are nearly comparable in talent to Ohio State, performance is a different story. They will need their best performance of the season to have any chance.