Alex Kielar | November 23rd, 2019
The biggest game of the year for both teams, the Penn State Nittany Lions and Ohio State Buckeyes face off on Saturday for a huge Big Ten battle that will decide the Big Ten East. Kickoff is at noon on Fox between the second-ranked Buckeyes and eighth-ranked Lions.
Even after Penn State’s heartbreaking loss at the hands of Minnesota two weeks ago, they know they have their destiny in their hands. Run the table the rest of the way, and they are most likely in the Playoff. Ohio State is obviously not an easy task, however, and they will have to play a heck of a lot better than the last two weeks. They are coming off a win over Indiana, but they played sloppy on both sides and barely squeaked out a 34-27 victory. Ohio State is coming off a 52-21 tromping of Rutgers as they also control their own destiny to the Playoff. Let’s dive deeper into the matchup and what each team needs to do to win.
Penn State: Sean Clifford
Clifford has had a pretty good season but has struggled over the last couple of weeks against Minnesota and Indiana. In Penn State’s loss to Minnesota, he looked very rusty and made a number of mistakes, throwing three interceptions and completing just 23 of 43 passes. He looked to be forcing some of his throws and the turnovers were ultimately the difference in the game. Last week against Indiana, he didn’t attempt nearly as many passes, completing 11 of 23 for one touchdown and 179 yards.
Facing Ohio State in Columbus will not be an easy task for Clifford, but he will have to put up his best game yet and show he can perform in the big moment. Not including the Minnesota game, Clifford has thrown for 21 touchdowns to just three interceptions and a 61% completion percentage. Clifford can also make things happen with his legs, and he will certainly have to move around in this game. He will definitely have to limit the mistakes, and any turnovers would most likely cost the Nittany Lions the game. Arguably the best player in the country, defensive end, Chase Young returns this week and will fluster Clifford.
Ohio State: Justin Fields
On the other hand, Fields hasn’t really had one bad game, as he has thrown 31 touchdowns to just one interception, with a 69.1% (nice) completion percentage. He has thrown for at least 167 yards every game, throwing for over nine yards per attempt. He has also rushed for 377 yards and 10 touchdowns, with an average of 4.5 yards per rush. Fields could have a “field” day against the Penn State secondary that has allowed an average of 240 yards of offense in the air per game to just 76 yards on the ground. Even if the Penn State defense can get pressure on Fields, he can also use his legs to make something happen. Penn State’s front is its strength, with 34 yards, the most rushing yards they have given up to a quarterback, to Michigan’s Shea Patterson, and most rushing yards to a running back was also in the Michigan game, giving up 81 yards to Zach Charbonnet. Their defense struggled last week against Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey, allowing for him to throw for 371 yards with an average of nine yards per attempt and one touchdown. The touchdown was 38 yards and saw a breakdown in coverage for the defense.
Advantage: Ohio State
As of the day, I am writing this, the status of top receiver threat KJ Hamler is still in question after a collision to his head/neck area that risked injury and forced him out of the game; It may end being a game-time decision. If Clifford is without his top receiver, it will add to an already extremely tough battle, which has Ohio State favored by 18 points. If Hamler plays, though, Penn State will make it a close game and maybe even win. The junior receiver has 46 catches for 791 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, his biggest game coming against Michigan with six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Hamler averages 17.2 yards per reception. Besides Hamler, Penn State’s receiving core includes sophomore Jahan Dotson (22 Rec, 412 Yds, 3 TDs), sophomore Justin Shorter (9 Rec, 109 Yds), junior Cam Sullivan-Brown (8 Rec, 56 Yds), and sophomore Daniel George (6 Rec, 74 Yds). Clifford also relies heavily on tight end Pat Freiermuth, who has 34 catches for 424 yards and seven touchdowns. The sophomore tight end will be an even bigger factor if Hamler is a no-go on game day. A few dropped passes in the loss to Minnesota certainly didn’t help the cause, and the receivers will have to be nearly perfect to give Penn State any kind of chance.
The Buckeyes have plenty of threats in the passing game, including sophomore Chris Olave (36 Rec, 584 Yds, 9 TDs), senior K.J. Hill (38 Rec, 423 Yds, 6 TDs), senior Binjimen Victor (27 Rec, 459 Yds, 6 TDs), freshman Garrett Wilson (19 Rec, 229 Yds, 4 TDs), and senior Austin Mack (15 Rec, 207 Yds, 2 TDs). Penn State’s defense has been burned two weeks in a row against Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan and Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey, and this week may well be another huge day for receivers. The rush will have a hard time getting to Fields and even if the secondary has a good day, receivers will still find ways to get open. If there are any busts in coverage, especially on the deep ball, Ohio State will throw all over the place. The only real hope for Penn State in somewhat stopping or slowing down the throwing attack is keeping the receivers in front of them and forcing them to go little by little, no chunk yards. But this Ohio State receiving core may end up too much in the end, even if the game is kept close, Penn State won’t be able to stop them all day.
Advantage: Ohio State
For Penn State to have a chance in this game, they will have to keep their run game going strong as they have the last two weeks. They rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota, averaging 6.1 yards a carry, and 192 yards and three touchdowns against Indiana while averaging 4.2 yards a carry. Junior Journey Brown scored both rushing touchdowns (his fifth and sixth of the year) against Minnesota while rushing for 124 yards. Brown also led the running attack last week against Indiana, rushing for 100 yards and one of the three rushing touchdowns. The other two rushing touchdowns came from Clifford. Freshman Noah Cain is questionable for the game as well, who has been a big piece of the ground game. Cain has rushed for 350 yards and six touchdowns on the season, along with seven receptions for 52 yards. If he can’t go, Penn State also has freshman Devyn Ford (289 Yds, two TDs, 5 Rec for 30 Yds) and sophomore Ricky Slade (120 Yds, two TDs, 12 Rec for 105 Yds) who have gotten solid reps this season. Even if Cain is unable to go, the rushing attack will still be strong with Brown leading the way. Penn State’s offensive line will have to be strong and be able to open up holes for the backs against the very tough Ohio State front.
The Buckeyes running attack is led by junior J.K. Dobbins who is having a very strong season with 1289 rushing yards and 13 TDs in 183 attempts, along with 14 receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Dobbins ranks fourth nationally in yards per game and 10th in touchdowns. The all-purpose back is on pace to break Eddie George‘s franchise single-season rushing record of 1,927 yards if Ohio State plays 15 games. This would mean playing in the Big Ten Championship game and advancing to the National Title Game. The run game has also relied on freshman back Master Teague, who in 114 attempts, has rushed for 744 yards and four touchdowns.
Advantage: Penn State (Slightly)
Penn State’s front has been its strength all season, holding opponents to just 2.19 yards per rushing attempt, the lowest in the nation. They will have to continue to dominate upfront to have a chance in the game and limit the production from one of the nation’s top rushers in Dobbins and one of the top rushing quarterbacks in Fields. Something will have to give in the game, as Ohio State has rolled through top rushing defenses this season. Michigan State came into their game against the Buckeyes ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed and allowed 323 yards on the ground. Wisconsin came into the matchup in Columbus ranked first in rushing defense and allowed 163 yards and two touchdowns to Dobbins.
Penn State hasn’t allowed a run longer than 29 yards all season, while Ohio State is one of seven teams with 15 or more rushes of 30 or more yards and one of three with seven carries of 50 or more yards. Sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons is one of the biggest leaders on defense, and he’s had 75 total tackles (eight for loss) and two sacks. Junior Yetur Gross-Matos (30 tackles-10 for loss, six sacks) and senior Shaka Toney (30 tackles- 7.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks, one fumble recovery) lead the defensive line. Last week, Penn State allowed under three yards a carry and 91 rushing yards.
On the other hand, Penn State’s secondary has struggled, especially of late, allowing two straight weeks of 300 yards in the air. Against Minnesota, they allowed touchdowns of 66 yards, 21 yards, and 38 yards, the most passing touchdowns they have allowed all season. In that game, the secondary got burned several times and can’t afford that against the Buckeyes. They also allowed a 38-yard touchdown pass last week to Indiana and 371 passing yards overall. The last two weeks were the only times all season that Penn State allowed over a 75% completion percentage (90% and 75.6%), the highest prior was 68.6% to Pitt. Facing a dual-threat quarterback in Fields will be a very tough task for Penn State’s secondary.
Ohio State has the number one pass defense in the country and the fifth-best rush defense right behind Penn State, and fourth-least yards per carry. They are allowing a nation-best 126 passing yards per game and a 6-to-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Penn State is the best receiver corp the Buckeyes will be facing all season and could give them a real test.
Junior defensive end Chase Young, arguably the number one player in the nation, returns from suspension and will cause mayhem at the front. Young has 29 total tackles (15.5 for loss -leads the nation), 13.5 sacks (leads the nation), and five forced fumbles. Young will be extra motivated and fully-charged for the battle and in his last game against Wisconsin he had six total tackles with five of them for loss, two forced fumbles, and four sacks, his biggest game of the season. Young has been in the Nittany faithful’s nightmares since last season when he wrapped up Miles Sanders on fourth-and-5 to secure the Buckeyes’ 27-26 victory. Ohio State’s defense has allowed just a 27% third-down rate, third in the nation, while Penn State is 45th in the nation in third downs converted on offense at 43%.
Advantage: Ohio State
While Ohio State has a huge advantage in nearly every category on paper and is a huge 18 point favorite, I expect this to be much closer. Penn State will be able to stay in this game and it will come down to the fourth quarter like this matchup has the last three years; Ohio State won both games the last two years by one point. Penn State is used to being underdogs and they very well may like it better that way, as they were also huge underdogs in 2016 and pulled off the upset. This year, they are ranked ninth coming into the battle and even while struggling a bit the last two weeks, they will put up a fight. I just don’t think they will do enough to win.
Final Score: Ohio State 41-38
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