Penn State will get its chance Saturday to move into position for a Big Ten championship and a College Football Playoff berth, but does so as a heavy underdog to Ohio State.
Can the Nittany Lions find some holes they can exploit against the undefeated and second-ranked Buckeyes? Here are five things to watch:
Ohio State’s 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior defensive end, back from a two-game NCAA suspension, is capable of blowing up an opposing offense’s game plan at any time because of his tendency to line up at different spots along the defensive line. He has registered 13 ½ sacks, leading the nation with a 1.69 average, and 15 ½ tackles for loss.
Just as important are the five fumbles that he’s forced, usually while bearing down on the quarterback. Nittany Lions QB Sean Clifford must be conscious of protecting the football at all costs as he looks for a receiver downfield.
The unit has looked nothing like the experienced collection of defensive backs, including fifth-year seniors John Reid and Garrett Taylor, that started the season. The group has allowed 710 yards passing the last two weeks, and opposing quarterbacks have completed 82% of their passes. Of course, a better pass rush (eight sacks in the last five games) would help greatly.
While Ohio State has emphasized its ground attack for most of the season, its quarterbacks have opened it up more in the last two weeks, passing for 699 yards in lopsided wins over Maryland and Rutgers.
Wide receiver and return man KJ Hamler, the Nittany Lions’ most explosive player, went down late in the first quarter last week and did not return. The last word on Hamler came Tuesday from head coach James Franklin, who said he was “hopeful” but emphasized, “The medical professionals will make that decision.”
Hamler is desperately needed to work his magic in space, catching passes on crossing routes and deep balls and using his speed and moves to create big plays. If he is absent, the Lions still have speedy receivers in Jahan Dotson and Dan Chisena, who is getting more playing time. Can they come close to matching Hamler’s effectiveness?
Lions quarterback and Ohio native Sean Clifford is a fiery, emotional leader, and his teammates love him for it. But there have been times this season when the redshirt sophomore has taken a while in the early stages of a game to settle down.
With more than 102,000 fans at the legendary Shoe screaming on every snap, he must do as a capable job of being as calm as possible leading his team and not making mistakes, particularly turning the ball over.
Franklin has said the Nittany Lions must match Ohio State play for play, either throwing the first punch or being sure to counter quickly when punched. This will be a big-time game with a berth in the Big Ten championship game and possibly a College Football Playoff spot on the line.
The Buckeyes haven’t played a team this highly ranked all season. Are they that good, or will Penn State find some holes it can exploit?
Saturday, noon, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
TV/radio: Fox29; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)
Records: Penn State, 9-1, 6-1 Big Ten, No. 8 in College Football Playoff ranking, No. 9 in AP ranking; Ohio State, 10-0, 7-0, ranked No. 2 in CFP and AP.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 54-22; 78-37 overall). Ohio State, Ryan Day (first season, 13-0; record includes three wins as acting head coach during Urban Meyer’s suspension in 2018).