Penn Stateby Jared Slanina
1. Hackenberg’s Poise - Christian Hackenberg has performed admirably during several "firsts" this season – first collegiate game, first road game, first night game, etc., etc. However, this will be the first time he’s played in one of the most hostile environments in all of college football – and with an 8 p.m. kickoff at that, he will need to play like a seasoned upperclassman rather than a true freshman for Penn State to have any chance of escaping Columbus with a victory. During times when he’s played like a true freshman, the offense has stalled since the run game just hasn’t performed well enough to carry the offense. If the offense can’t maintain drives, the defense will get worn down pretty easily by Carlos Hyde and will be too gassed to catch Braxton Miller once he gets loose.
2. Tight End Involvement - Many Nittany Lion fans prematurely anointed Penn State as "Tight End U" after an impressive season by the unit in 2012. Their overall production is down this season, but has picked up the past few games as Hackenberg becomes more comfortable throwing to the tight ends. Ohio State has struggled with its pass defense throughout the season, and it will be crucial for Penn State to identify and try to exploit any mismatches by getting the ball to Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Plus, you just have to believe Bill O’Brien has been saving a few new tight end-friendly packages for this game.
3. A Consistent Pass Rush - My biggest fear for Saturday is that Braxton Miller just goes off and has one of those games that places him back in the Heisman conversation. It could very well happen between his incredible abilities and the weaknesses of the Nittany Lions defense. Penn State’s defensive line played tremendous against Michigan after being non-existent during several stretches of the season. They will need to be after Miller early and often to slow down a very dangerous Buckeyes defense. This means finding a way to apply pressure from all angles to get Miller rattled. Otherwise he will be able to scramble around the pocket and find the open man or just tuck it and run for big gains all night.
Ohio Stateby Brett Ludwiczak
After trailing at halftime the last two games, The Ohio State Buckeyes will look to start off a little faster against Penn State on Saturday night in The Horseshoe. While Ohio State has used second half comebacks to defeat Northwestern and Iowa, fans will be looking for a little more in the national ABC primetime telecast. The Buckeyes will be looking not to repeat the same fate as 2008 when Penn State came into Columbus for a night game and left with a 13-6 victory.
The biggest issue for the Buckeyes lately has been the secondary, or lack thereof. The void left by Christian Bryant after his injury late in the game to Wisconsin has been yet to filled, not only in terms of performance but leadership as well. The issues were compounded last week against Iowa when Bradley Roby was ejected in the first quarter for targeting. The bright spot so far for the much maligned secondary so far this season has been the play of Doran Grant. The junior from Akron is tied with Roby for the team lead with two interceptions and has had nine passes defensed so far this season.
For as many questions as the Ohio State pass defense has had so far this year, the run defense has picked up the slack. In the other game under the lights in Columbus this year, Ohio State held running machine Wisconsin to just 104 yards on the ground. For the season the Buckeyes are only allowing opponents 92.4 YPG on the ground, and will look to slow down the trio of running backs that Penn State has. In six games so far this year, Zack Zwinak has led the Nittany Lions three times in the rushing yards, Akeel Lynch has led them twice, and Bill Belton has topped the team once.
The Buckeyes have shown that when they do get a complete game from the defense there are very few teams in the country that could beat them, because the offense is so efficient. So far this season the Ohio State offense has scored 31 points or more in every game, and the only time they failed to crack 400 total yards was in the victory against Wisconsin.
The Penn State defense has had mixed results this year, dominating teams that they should have in non-conference play, but also showing noticeable holes against UCF, Indiana, and Michigan. It could be make for a long night for the Nittany Lions defense if the Buckeyes are able to establish the run early with Hyde and Miller which would open up some play-action for Miller to hit the plethora of targets he has at his disposal through the air.