STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Members of the Penn State coaching staff who studied film of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields this week couldn’t have helped tossing and turning through the night recalling how Fields hurt the Nittany Lions last year, and not just with his arm.
Fields rushed for a season-best 68 yards on a career-high 21 carries in the Buckeyes’ 28-17 win over the Lions last season in Columbus. He called his own number three times on third-down plays for first downs, including a 17-yard gain on third-and-12, and another time on a 22-yard quarterback draw on fourth-and-5.
Now the 18th-ranked Nittany Lions meet up again with the 6-foot-3, 228-pound Fields on Saturday night when the No. 3 Buckeyes roll into Beaver Stadium. They know one of the ways to avoid a 0-2 Big Ten start for the first time since 2010 is to keep him contained.
Penn State defensive line coach John Scott Jr., calls it “a tremendous challenge.”
“Any time you get a quarterback that has 4.3 speed and he’s as big as he is, not only do you have to do a great job trying to keep him boxed in, but when you get to him, you have to be able to tackle him,” Scott said Thursday.
“Last week against Nebraska, they had defenders hanging off him and they couldn’t stop him and get him down. Watching tape of him from last year, it’s the same deal. We have to try to do a great job of keeping him boxed in when his read’s not there. We have to do a great job of getting him on the ground when we get to him.”
The Lions can’t overlook Fields' passing ability, either. The junior, who originally committed to Penn State, completed 20 of 21 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 52-17 win over Nebraska while running 15 times for 54 yards and one score.
“It may not even necessarily be [Fields'] actual runs, but his ability to extend plays with the dynamic receivers that they have that is challenging,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "If you look across college football and now in the NFL, it’s similar. It’s hard to stop all the different things that offenses are doing now.
“It’s going to be a focal point for us this week and it’s going to be challenging. He’s one of the best players in college football.”
The Nittany Lions are sure to be more than a little fired up after last week’s crushing 36-35 overtime loss at Indiana where penalties, turnovers and other mistakes ruined an otherwise efficient performance on offense and defense.
The Lions are down to three running backs after Noah Cain’s season-ending injury and need to boost their production from last week when the trio rushed 31 times for 120 yards. Sophomore Devyn Ford will get the majority of reps while freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes will see more action.
“I think they both have been working extremely hard,” quarterback Sean Clifford said of Lee and Holmes, “but they’ve just got to get caught up a little bit more mentally. They’re young and they haven’t taken reps like that. So it’s just bringing them along, making sure that I’m in their ear constantly, pushing them to be the best they can be.”
The Buckeyes got off to a relatively slow start last week against Nebraska but outscored the Cornhuskers 28-3 in the second half to win going away. Fields accounted for 330 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, but running backs Trey Sermon and Master Teague managed just a combined 86 yards in 23 carries, an area that head coach Ryan Day wants to see improved. Another area of concern was Ohio State’s rush defense which allowed 217 yards on the ground.
The Nittany Lions outgained Indiana by 277 yards last week but still lost, 36-35, in overtime mainly because of 10 penalties, three turnovers and three missed field goals. Their defense held the Hoosiers to 41 rushing yards, which could be a significant area of concern for the Buckeyes.
The key for the defense is containing Fields better than the unit did last year. Offensively, the Nittany Lions need more chunk plays after recording only two last week. And fewer penalties and no turnovers would be nice.
Prediction: Ohio State 27, Penn State 24