This year's Big Ten funhouse is living proof that early predictions -- be they preseason, post-Week 1, whatever -- don't really do anyone much good. Ohio State's struggles are the most beaten of dead horses, but other #takes offered while the season was still young look equally out of date just six weeks in. Michigan is perhaps the most obvious example, shocking the world so far with a third-ranked S&P+ performance despite an early loss to another trendy playoff pick, Utah.
But perhaps the strangest team to consider in this light is Penn State. The Nittany Lions inexplicably lost by 17 to, uhh, Temple in Week 2, a game that featured perhaps the worst pass protection in the history of college football. James Franklin's job looked to have about as much security as your average social media intern, and PSU fans were livid. Fast forward to Week 6. State College's finest are 5-1, including a 29-7 win over the same Indiana team that Ohio State struggled so mightily to put away a week earlier.
One of the things that Penn State has done pretty well down that stretch is run the football. They've faced at least one key injury-- more on that in a minute -- but all the same, the Nittany Lions are far more effective on the ground than through the air (50th vs. 113th in S&P+, respectively). The PSU offense is far from intimidating, but stopping the run on Saturday will go a long way towards keeping Ohio State's momentum going after finally finding a footing against Maryland. That's where Joshua Perry comes in.
Weight: 254 lbs
Current Stat Line: 40.0 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 1 pass breakup
Perry is the most technically skilled tackler on the Buckeye defense. He led the team in that category during last year's championship run despite not garnering much press, and he's second this year behind fellow LB Raekwon McMillan. On running plays to either side, he always seems to find a way to leverage an arm or hand in somewhere to participate in the takedown, and his nose for the ball is uncanny.
The game situation
Explosive plays almost doomed the Buckeyes last weekend against the Terps, at least until the OSU offense really got things going. One of the biggest plays of the day was a 75-yard rush by QB Perry Hills, setting up a four-yard score to tie the game for Maryland. In a game earlier this season, the Terrapins tallied 29 total rushing yards on 26 attempts, so Hills' scamper, part of a 170-yard ground effort by the QB and a 253-yard total from Maryland as a whole, didn't make the Buckeyes look particularly good.
Given that the Buckeyes have shown a troubling tendency to give up big plays on the ground (sup, Zander Diamont), it doesn't bode well that Penn State's most explosive rusher, freshman Saquon Barkley, returns this week. Barkley has missed PSU's last two games with a nebulous lower body injury, but he's expected back for the Dark Night in the Shoe. Despite his absences, Barkley still leads his team in rush yards, TDs, and yards per carry, averaging a whopping 8.9 so far. Perry flying to the ball to contain Barkley will be massive for the Buckeyes as they try to put away the Nittany Lions and keep the train rolling.
What to watch for
A defensive front seven featuring as many weapons as Ohio State's has is going to cause problems for a team like Penn State, so willing to play the matador up front this season. If Perry and co. can stuff the run at a rate commensurate with some of college football's other top defenses, they'll force beleaguered junior QB Christian Hackenberg more often than he or James Franklin would like. Penn State was this close to upsetting the Buckeyes in State College last year, eventually losing on a walk-off sack by Joey Bosa in double OT. (Yes, Rutgers fans, that's a much more dignified way to go than a walk-off spike.)
Outside of Perry vs. Barkley, it will be interesting to see how well Hackenberg can distribute the ball to his two best receivers, Chris Godwin and so-far underachiever DaeSean Hamilton. Ohio State's secondary had a few rare stumbles against a flaccid Terrapins passing attack; is it so ludicrous to think they might give up another big pass or two if they're keying in on the run game?
My years at Ohio State ran from 2008-2012, meaning that both times I saw Penn State play in Columbus were losses in night games (thanks, Pat Devlin/Evan Royster/Navarro Bowman/Obama). So forgive me for feeling like I've got Joel Stave-level yips heading into watching this matchup. The numbers aren't wild about Ohio State, either -- SB Nation's Bill Connelly's metrics have the Buckeyes favored by just over three points against a team that, again, lost to Temple already this season.
Still, it seems like Urban Meyer might have keyed in on what makes this offense tick: namely, Cardale Jones from distance, J.T. Barrett from the red zone. Add in a healthy dose of Ezekiel Elliott, and you've got a recipe for putting up points on a team that has otherwise been stingy with them (PSU comes in with the country's 17th-best defense, according to S&P+). This game won't be the pointgasm that Buckeye fans are still kind of waiting for from a team with a million weapons, but as sloppy as Ohio State has looked, they haven't looked Penn State sloppy. Urban Meyer's squad pulls this one out by a score something like 27-14 that feels much closer than it is.