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Ohio State’s offensive juggernaut will be a challenge for Penn State

The Nittany Lions' defense is among the best in the Big Ten, but the offense must be more effective against the No. 5 Buckeyes.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford says he should be 100% when he takes his first snap.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford says he should be 100% when he takes his first snap.Read moreMatthew Putney / AP

The numbers are scary.

Ohio State averages more than 49 points per game.

Penn State has scored 38 points total in its last two games.

The offensive stats remain lopsided across the board. The Buckeyes average almost 560 yards of total offense per game to the Nittany Lions’ 372, and 8.44 yards per play. Of their 46 touchdowns, 23 have come on plays of 20 yards or more. Penn State has scored 22 TDs all season.

So there’s plenty to worry about before a national television audience in prime time at the historic Shoe. Sean Clifford says he should be 100% when he takes his first snap at quarterback for Penn State, but is his presence going to be enough for his team to keep up with the Buckeyes’ juggernaut?

It’s been a long offensive drought. Since Clifford went down with an injury at Iowa early in the second quarter three weeks ago, the Lions have scored one touchdown in 23 possessions and are an abysmal 4 of 27 on third down. The run game has gone nowhere.

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A stalled offense means the defense must spend an excessive amount of time on the field. In their last two games, the Nittany Lions have lost the time of possession battle by a total of 24-plus minutes.

Nonetheless, Ohio State coach Ryan Day remembers his days as an assistant when Penn State lost back-to-back one-point nail-biters to the Buckeyes in 2017 and 2018. The games haven’t been nearly as close the last two years with Day now in charge, but he knows what can happen.

“When you look at the games that we’ve had with them in the past, they’re always a dogfight,” Day said this week. “That’s just the way it’s been, and I know it’s going to be that way. They have a lot of pride. They’re a very good program. Coach [James] Franklin does a very good job. We know when Penn State comes to town, we’ve got to be on our game, and this is going to be one of those games.”

Here’s what to expect:

Strength vs. strength

  1. The Nittany Lions have played some excellent defense, ranking sixth in FBS in points allowed and 26th in total defense, and will be the Buckeyes’ stiffest test of the season. They rank third in pass efficiency defense and Ohio State is third in pass efficiency. The red zone numbers are eye-popping — Penn State has allowed just seven touchdowns in 23 opponent trips, with a 65.2% mark overall. Ohio State is 28 of 29 on offense with 26 consecutive conversions, and 26 touchdowns. The Buckeyes had a streak broken last week of touchdowns on 19 straight possessions.

Finding the explosion

  1. Franklin brought in offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich last January because he wanted to see more explosive plays, but that hasn’t happened much lately. The Nittany Lions have accounted for just two in each of the last two games, including completions of 36 and 42 yards on consecutive plays that gave them their only touchdown against Illinois. It’s not likely that Ohio State will allow Jahan Dotson to roam as freely as he did last year when he burned the Buckeyes for eight catches, 144 yards and three touchdowns, but the Lions are going to have to find these long gainers from somewhere if they want to have a chance.

The other guys

  1. Freshman phenoms: The Buckeyes, who annually sign one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, hit the jackpot with redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud and true freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson. Second in FBS in pass efficiency, Stroud has completed 67.6% of his passes for 1,965 yards and 22 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Henderson leads the nation with 8.79 yards per carry and has scored 14 touchdowns (11 rushing, three receiving). He has rushed for 686 yards with six runs of 30 yards or longer.

  2. Sack pack: Ohio State has 25 sacks, with 19 coming in the past four weeks, and its 3.57-sack per game average is eighth nationally. Defensive tackles Haskell Garrett and Tyliek Williams have combined for 8.5 sacks. Garrett also has 10.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore safety Ronnie Hickman leads the team in tackles with 52. The defense also has scored five touchdowns with four of them being pick-sixes.

Keys to the Game

  1. Capitalizing on turnovers. One of the more unsatisfactory aspects of last week’s disappointing loss for Penn State was its lack of success converting turnovers into points — three led only to a field goal. The Lions have scored 27 points off 13 takeaways, while Ohio State has cashed in 11 takeaways for 42 points. The Nittany Lions certainly could use a few short fields to help them keep pace, or maybe score their second defensive touchdown of the season.

  2. The one-dimensional blues. Probably more words have been written about the Lions’ run game this season than any other aspect of their team. Coming off a bye week, Penn State came out with a plan to run the ball against Illinois and failed miserably. With only one week to prepare for Ohio State, the guess is that any improvement on the ground would be incremental, but that would mean a reliance on the passing game. That wouldn’t be good considering the Buckeyes’ defensive touchdowns and sacks and the fact they have nine interceptions.

Prediction: Ohio State 41, Penn State 20

No. 20 Penn State at No. 5 Ohio State

Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

TV/Radio: 6ABC; WCAU-AM (1210)

Line: Ohio State by 18½

Records: Penn State, 5-2, 2-2; Ohio State 6-1, 4-0.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 65-30). Ohio State, Ryan Day (third season, 29-3).

Series: Ohio State leads 22-14 and has won four straight and eight of the last nine, including last year’s 38-25 victory at Beaver Stadium.