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Ohio State vs. Penn State Preview: Bucks look to black out Nittany Lions

Penn State and Ohio State have a rich, if short history. This rivalry almost always delivers a good game, and with the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes both trending up, the stage is set for another classic.

Hackenberg and the Lions look to trip up Ohio State
Hackenberg and the Lions look to trip up Ohio State
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State and Penn State are two programs that are typically tied together in some way or another. Maybe it is from the relative proximity of State College and Columbus, or maybe it is because both schools are the flag carriers for their respective states, two powerhouse high school football breeding grounds. Maybe it is because of legendary coaches on both sides. Maybe it is because of recent scandals and overzealous punishments.

But most likely it is because Ohio State and Penn State more often than not play pretty close football against one another, and have every year since 1993. Combined, Ohio State holds a 16-13 win advantage over Penn State, and the Buckeyes have only outscored the Nittany Lions 643-538 dating back to the first matchup in 1912; 13 games between the two teams have been within a touchdown.

All told, however, the result in this game typically goes to the better team. Only three times has an unranked PSU team beat a top-10 Buckeye team (though it was, admittedly, awhile ago: 1956, 1963, 1964). Trumping that, these teams have met four times with one of them ranked No. 1 in the country (OSU three times, PSU once) and each time, the No. 1 team was the winner on the field. In the last three years, Ohio State has played Penn State as the No. 9, No. 4 and No. 13 team in the country; the Buckeyes won all three match-ups.

So where are we in 2015? Penn State opened their year with an awful road loss to Temple before running off five straight wins, all at home, most recently a 29-7 drubbing of the same Indiana team that gave Ohio State a scare in Bloomington. Meanwhile, Ohio State won big at Virginia Tech before looking up-and-down for the next five weeks, winning each game despite un-Buckeye-like performances. Penn State comes in with an improving defense and an NFL-caliber quarterback, while the Buckeye defense is now the unit with questions, as the offense seems to have righted their ship.

In other words, these two oft-tied-together teams are setup for another classic under the lights at Ohio Stadium.

Data dump

Team Record AP F/+ Rk Line
Penn State 5-1 NR 44
Ohio State 6-0 1 15 -17.5

Penn State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.48 10 1.07 12 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 35.2% 119 34.6% 22 40.1%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 35.5 3 27.9 47 29.7
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.44 91 5.38 109 4.65

Ohio State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.38 22 1.23 65 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 45.2% 36 31.2% 8 40.1%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.3 8 26.9 25 29.7
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.02 54 4.33 50 4.65
ACTUAL -2 86

Penn State's Biggest Advantages

Nittany Lion defense begins to roar. Penn State has shined over the last five weeks thanks largely in part to their defense, and the performance the Nittany Lions have put on the field. Put a lot of the credit there on the broad shoulders of Carl Nassib, the West Chester, PA native, and one of the best defensive linemen in the country. Nassib has 27 tackles this year, and leads the country in sacks with 10 sacks, accounting for 75 lost yards to opposing offenses. Penn State's scoring defense checks in tied for 11th with Florida, and allows only 117 rushing yards per game, good enough for 26th in the country. The Buckeyes bring plenty of rushing talent to the table, and a 230 yards per game average, but, as always, working against a good, big, talented Penn State front will make for tough sledding for Ezekiel Elliott and company.

But it isn't just the defense against the run that has been excelling for Penn State. In their loss to Temple, Penn State only gave up 168 yards and no touchdowns through the air. Now, three touchdowns given up by the rushing defense gushed about above is worth noting. But for the most part the defense has filled some holes exposed against Temple and are playing their best football of the year. They're opportunistic, too: Penn State is +8 in the turnover margin on the year, and that may not bode well for a Buckeye team that's -2 in the same statistic, and prone to fumbles and interceptions at very inopportune times.

Let's talk about Christian Hackenberg. I'm not in Christian Hackenberg's fan club, probably because Google is good at finding things that people write about other people. We know that the junior began his career at Penn State at a quick pace: just under 3000 yards passing, 20 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions and over 7 yards per attempt during his freshman season. His sophomore season ... welp. While Hackenberg was just about the same quarterback in terms of yards, he was no where near his freshman form in terms of everything else: fewer completions, lower yards-per-attempt percentage, only 12 touchdowns, up to 15 interceptions and, no thanks to his offensive line, 44 sacks. Hackenberg was planted so many times last year, I'm surprised the turf didn't bloom with Christian-shaped flowers in the spring.

What is Hackenberg this year? So far, his junior campaign has been better than the previous year, but still not reaching the heights of his rookie season. Seven touchdowns is good, and only two interceptions is better. With a rushing attack whose two biggest threats, Saquon Barkley (back from a two-week injury vacation) and Akeel Lynch, barely equal one Buckeye Elliott, Hackenberg will have to do the lion's share of the work. But the offensive line, still isn't playing at an elite level for its rushers, or its quarterback: Hackenberg has already been put to ground 19 times. Joey BosaDarron Lee and Adolphus Washington, and Joshua Perry have to be licking their chops.

#Julius4Piesman. Name your favorite kicker in college football. Whomever you said, they should be #2 behind Joey Julius, my favorite player on any other team in the country. Get a load of the big fella.  The freshman wearing #99 for the Blue and White is a sight to behold, at 5-10, 265 pounds (yeah, sure) and a kicker. A KICKER! Julius is 8/9 kicking field goals (JOEY HAPPY), but missed two extra points last week (Joey sad). At that size, on the off chance Penn State delves into trickeration, Buckeye special teamers will need to wrap up and hold on.

Ohio State's biggest advantages

The Two-Headed Quarterback Monster. Ohio State's newest wrinkle worked to great effect last week against Maryland, using Cardale Jones to drive the ball down the field, and J.T. Barrett to finish drives in the red zone. This might be the solution for the future for Urban Meyer's much-maligned offense. Jones finished with career highs in attempts (28), and yards (291), as well as two touchdowns. Barrett ran for 62 yards and accounted for three touchdowns on the ground. Penn State's defense is much better than Maryland's (see above), but, if you include the conference's best runner in Elliott, and a receiving corps that is beginning to re-emphasize Braxton Miller, it should have their hands full keeping the Buckeyes off the scoresheet.

Mistake-free defense is a must. Ohio State shut out Hawaii. It shut down Western Michigan. It saved the game against Northern Illinois. But then it got torched for a big, almost-game-changing touchdown against Indiana. And but for a Vonn Bell tackle, the same thing could have happened when Maryland's Perry Hill dashed through the heart of the Buckeyes for 75 yards (Hills would score on the next play to bring the Terps within a score headed into the half). This is a disturbing trend, to say the least, as the defense was all but responsible for putting away Northern Illinois, and was able to shut down Indiana's upset bid on their last offensive snap of the game, with a chance to send the game to overtime.

The Buckeye defense is filled with stars: Bosa, Lee, Washington, Bell, Raekwon MacMillan, Tyvis Powell, et. al. All of these players have come up big in certain situations, but will have to shine on the primetime stage to keep Hackenberg honest, and with eight interceptions on the year, they should be hungry. The defense is only allowing 147.5 yards through the air, ninth nationally, but the big runs over the last two games have knocked the Buckeyes back nationally, with 152.7 yards allowed per game, just 55th nationally. No big plays allowed means no problems, in theory.

Special Teams continues to flip the field. If you go back to the Sugar Bowl win against Alabama, there was a good case to be made for J.K. Scott as the Crimson Tide's player of the game. He punted seven times, averaging 55 yards per boot, and pinned the Buckeyes inside their 20 five times. It almost cost Ohio State the game. Luckily, Cameron Johnston had a big Sugar Bowl, too, and the Aussie continues to impress this year. The Buckeyes, on the strength of Johnston's leg, are sixth nationally in net punting, and have only allowed 35 punt return yards all year. The 28 punts in just six games is a lot by Buckeye standards (Johnston only punted 48 times in 15 games last year) but when the field needs flipped, Johnston is the guy to do it. If the Buckeyes stall on offense, Aussie Rules could be a huge factor in keeping Penn State deep in their own territory.


F/+ Projection: Ohio State 26, Penn State 22

Win probability: Ohio State 57%

Perhaps the biggest difference in this game regards projecting a final score. The advanced stats, above, suggest a close game (because, after all, it is the Penn State game) with a relatively low score. The hotel builders in Las Vegas, on the other hand, agree with the score total (the Vegas over/under is between 47 and 48.5), but the oddsmakers love the Buckeyes, to the tune of 17 points. Something has to give.

The difference here is in how you look at this game. Advanced stats measure how the teams are playing now, taking into account luck, turnovers, explosive play and other metrics important to a team's current performance. But it doesn't really take into account a great deal of intangibles, and this game is filled with them. This is a night game, and Urban Meyer teams historically play lights out with the lights on. The Buckeyes are wearing special uniforms, which amp up the players almost as much as the 105,000+ patrons taking in the game at The Shoe. Penn State has flown under the radar since their week one loss at Temple, and has steadily improved to become contenders in the division, while Ohio State has the same target on its back that they've had since Eli Apple intercepted Marcus Mariota to win the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

So do we go with the predictions of the oddsmakers in the desert, or do we trust the same statistics that have the Buckeyes losing to Illinois and Michigan later in the year? My guess is that the oddsmakers are the ones taking history into account, and the history between these two teams might be the best predictor there is.

Predict the score: