The Buckeyes are reemerging into the national spotlight with four straight beatdowns where they scored over 50 points per game. With just one loss, the Buckeyes are in a prime position with Alabama, TCU, Baylor, Michigan State, and Georgia to try and take advantage of the overall parity in college football this season.
The question on everyone's mind is just how good this offense has become since the loss to Virginia Tech. While 50+ points per game is certainly impressive and the Braxton Miller-less unit has still almost equaled their preseason offensive projection (8th in Offensive F/+), these past four wins have come against the 103rd, 91st, 32nd, and 73rd-ranked F/+ defenses. Penn State, at 42nd in overall F/+ and 9th in Defensive F/+ presents the biggest defensive challenge since Virginia Tech.
|Overall||Penn State||Ohio State|
|Field Position Advantage||101||2|
The overall summary stats give a good picture of both teams. Penn State is hammpered by a middling offensive line and a lack of explosive receivers, but has a stout, prototypical Big Ten defense (that is, great against the run). The Buckeyes look like an elite team in each major category except in the win-loss column, where it's hard to believe this same squad lost to the 4-3 Hokies.
Penn State on Offense
|When Penn State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
This is the matchup that almost no one is talking about -- Penn State's offense versus the Buckeye defense. Both units are better per-play than per-possession, but the Nittany Lions have been absolutely terrible strining together positive plays for points. Penn State sports one of the country's worst overall offenses in red zone touchdown percentage, converting just 39% of red zone trips into touchdowns.
The Nittany Lions have been slightly better running the ball than passing, but that is mostly due to an offensive line that is 104th in Passing Downs Sack Rate (allowing a sack in roughly 1/10 Passing Downs). They have run the ball with just about average efficiency, so the real issue with the offense sputtering has been in keeping Hackenberg upright when it is an obvious passing situation. One key for the Buckeyes will be in limiting Penn State rushing on first and second down to force those obvious Passing Downs, where the Buckeyes' 5th-best Front 7 Havoc Rate defense can create big defensive plays. If the Nittany Lions can't keep it under 3rd-and-five or 3rd-and-four, I don't see any way they can win this game. Building on that, Chris Ash's expertise in the secondary has shown up statistically, where the Buckeyes have improved from 61st to 16th this season (and against some decent opposing passing offenses, believe it or not). Hackenberg is a good quarterback, but with his shaky offensive line and lack of an explosive receiving threat, the Nittany Lions offensive staff will have their work cut out for them to balance early-down passes, new looks in the run game, and big plays against the Ohio State defense.
Ohio State on Offense
|When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
The Nittany Lions boast the top overall rush defense in the country when looking at pure rushing yards per game, holding opponents to an average of just 61 yards. Even when adjusting for opponents, the Penn State rush defense is elite at 8th overall. However, the Nittany Lions got a big bump from actually holding Michigan to 64 rushing yards two weeks ago (Michigan is actually 24th in Offensive Rushing S&P+), but that bump is a little artificial since the Wolverines were without their top running back Derrick Green. The point is that it's a little difficult to project just how the Buckeyes' rushing offense will do against the Nittany Lions, other than to say that linebacker Mike Hull is a heck of a player against the run.
Where Herman and Meyer will really put their focus is in the passing game, where they should have a decent advantage. The Buckeyes have the top overall Offensive Success Rate, 3rd-ranked Passing S&P+ and 5th-ranked Passing Downs offense, which matches up extremely well versus the Nittany Lions' secondary, which is 88th in Defensive Back Havoc Rate. If Taylor Decker and company can handle the pressure from the front 7 (17th in Front 7 Havoc Rate), then the Buckeyes should be able to have a high degree of efficiency with guys like Mike Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Devin Smith, and Corey Smith. One thing to note is that the Buckeyes have had four different leading receivers so far this year -- some of that is because there is simply a lot of talent in the receiving core now, but more the Buckeyes are getting used to all of the new personnel at hand. There may not be an Amari Cooper or Kevin White on the team, but J.T. Barrett is making several guys look really solid and there's no telling who might break out in each game.