For the first time since what feels like the Virginia Tech game, Ohio State heads into a Saturday on a high note. Against Maryland last week, the Buckeyes cured their redzone woes with a two quarterback system, and got solid performances across the board.
Cardale Jones threw efficiently and made smart decisions, while Ezekiel Elliott churned out yet another 100-yard rushing effort. The wide receivers collectively stepped up, posting their best game of the season. Michael Thomas quietly recorded the first 100-yard receiving game of his career, while Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller each accounted for over 70 yards. In all, it was the most complete day for the offense since the season opener against Virginia Tech. But, in a season full of inconsistency, it was fitting that the defense slipped as the offense progressed.
The Silver Bullets surrendered season highs in points (28) and yards per play (5.6). The trend of allowing explosive plays continued, as Maryland was able to rip off more than a few big gains. Their struggles versus running quarterbacks also crept up for a second straight week. There were bright spots, however.
The foursome of Tyquan Lewis, Joey Bosa, Sam Hubbard, and Adolphus Washington continue to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and make plays in the backfield. Lewis in particular has emerged as a stud pass rusher, with Hubbard's development not far behind. They'll all get an opportunity to shine this week, as it just so happens that one of the worst offensive lines in the country comes to Columbus!
It's rare that a team of Penn State's stature is 5-1, but is a relative unknown. Before last week's 27-9 beatdown of Indiana, the Nittany Lions hadn't played anyone of note since their week one loss to Temple, which most of the country remembers for this:
RUN THE DANG TWO MAN RUSH, FICKELL
Despite some up and down play, Penn State has won five straight games. Christian Hackenberg may not be posting the numbers everyone expected, but is playing as well as one can behind what is an offensive line in name only. Luckily for Hackenberg, the Penn State defense has lent a helping hand.
Penn State brings one of the country's nastier defenses to Columbus, and have been excellent in getting after the quarterback, limiting explosive plays, and giving their offense great field position. All of that adds up to being the best defense the Buckeyes have faced so far this season. It also should be the best atmosphere in Ohio Stadium.
As if playing Penn State at home in primetime weren't enough, Ohio State decided to up the ante. In what's being dubbed as, "Dark night in The Shoe," The Buckeyes will finally break out their all black uniforms for the first time, and no, your take on how don't they fit in with the history of Ohio State doesn't matter because they're awesome.
Ohio Stadium is going to be rocking, and with the offensive improvements of the last two weeks, The Buckeyes have a great opportunity to play their most complete game of the season. Here are five things to watch for Saturday night:
Ohio State used JT Barrett!
After only converting one of their previous nine opportunities into touchdowns, Urban Meyer made a change prior to Maryland, installing JT Barrett as the unofficial redzone quarterback. Barrett and the offense responded in kind, scoring touchdowns on all six of their chances.
Last week, Meyer noted that the quarterback run element of the offense is missing with Jones, and Barrett made the most of his skillset, rushing 12 times for 62 yards and three scores. The system continues against Penn State, and will pay dividends should the Buckeyes continue to create scoring opportunities.
For as stingy as the Nittany Lion defense is, they've struggled on their side of the field, giving up eight touchdowns on 11 opponents trips inside the redzone. They haven't been any better outside the 20, ranking 109th nationally in points per trip inside the 40. No matter which quarterback is in the game, if Ohio State can move the ball into Penn State territory consistently, touchdowns are likely to ensue.
Ohio State relied heavily on Barrett's legs last season in Happy Valley, especially during each overtime period. It's a good bet the Buckeyes repeat those tactics once in the redzone this time around, too.
With the way the season has gone, it's funny to imagine that scoring touchdowns in the redzone will be the easy part. To even get there, Ohio State must move the ball on what's been a top flight defense, piloted by a filthy pass rush.
Led by senior defensive end Carl Nassib's 10 sacks, Penn State has excelled at pressuring quarterbacks, ranking second nationally in adjusted sack rate. He's not a one man show either, as defensive tackle Austin Johnson's interior strikes have led to 7.5 tackles for loss with 3.5 sacks. Penn State's defensive line is devastating in passing situations, ranking 4th in sack rate, and forming the backbone of one of the best defenses in the country on passing downs. This isn't good for an Ohio State offensive line that's struggled at times to protect the passer, but there are options to counteract the explosive Penn State duo.
One thing Ohio State did very well last week was getting the ball out of Jones' hand quickly. The main way was through the use of wide receiver screens. Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas were the main beneficiaries, and along with Braxton Miller, should receive opportunities to slice through the Nittany Lions defense. Even an excellent front would struggle against this defensive line, and those quick hitters can help mitigate some of the disruption.
Ohio State's offense will have its hands full, but the Penn State offensive line will be equally, if not more, challenged. The Nittany Lions front is one of the more maligned units in the country, failing to get consistent push in the run game, while leaving Christian Hackenberg out to dry frequently. Unfortunately for them, Ohio State has just the personnel to take advantage.
The Buckeye defensive line has steadily improved as the season has gone on, ranking in the top 20 nationally in Standard Downs Sack Rate, Passing Downs Sack Rate, and Adjusted Sack Rate. This week, they'll face an offensive line ranked 120th, 98th, and 114th in those categories, respectively. Expect a lot of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Ohio State will attack not only from the outside, but Adolphus Washington provides an interior rush to supplement what Joey Bosa and Tyquan Lewis are doing on the edge. The Buckeyes also have the luxury of moving Bosa inside on passing downs to get Sam Hubbard outside. Hubbard has progressed every week and should get plenty of opportunities to greet Hackenberg.
If Ohio State is able to get an early lead and force Penn State into passing situations, it's going to be a long day.
For as lackluster as Penn State's offense has been, one area they've excelled is making big plays. Penn State ranks in the top 10 nationally in scrimmage plays over 30 yards, with most coming on the ground. Running back Saquon Barkley is the lynchpin for this explosiveness, averaging nearly 9 yards per carry in the four games he's played. If the Nittany Lions have any intention of making this a game, Barkley's inclusion in the lineup is of utmost importance. As of now, Barkley's status is unknown to the public, but Penn State knows whether or not he'll play.
If he does play, the Buckeye defense will need to reverse its trend of being gashed by interior runs and explosive carries. Barkley is already one of the most elusive running backs in the country, so Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillian and Joshua Perry must bring him down on first contact when they have the chance.
Limiting Barkley effectively shuts down the Penn State offense. The Buckeye defense has shown a tendency to break and not bend, but if they can limit big plays, Penn State doesn't offer much else to pose a significant threat.
The black 'Shoe diary
I'd be remiss to not mention how incredible Ohio Stadium is going to be Saturday night. Thanks to the snoozefest of a home non-conference schedule, Ohio State home games have lacked the atmosphere that makes The 'Shoe such a tough place to play. That won't be the case on Saturday.
Not only is Penn State coming to town for a night game, but the Buckeyes will finally be donning their oft-rumored all black uniform, which includes this sweet matte black helmet:
While traditionalists will gripe, going #allblackeverything creates a new and exciting environment in The Shoe. It'll be cool to see on TV, and even cooler if you're in person.
Since Urban Meyer's arrival in 2012, he's constantly campaigned to play home night games, and this one has potential to be the best yet. If the Buckeyes play like their capable of, it also might be the one that propels them into a dominant stretch run.