It wasn’t long ago that the college football world was wondering when, not if, the axe would come down on James Franklin’s Penn State tenure. One of the preseason’s most widely-discussed topics, Franklin seemed to need a series of small miracles and big wins to hang onto his job. Seriously, a *lot* of people were talking about it:
The chatter wasn’t exactly undeserved, either. After coming to Penn State from Vanderbilt, Franklin went just 14-12 in his first two seasons with the Nittany Lions—an uninspiring start for a new coach at such a high-profile gig. Last season, which featured the infamous two-on-five sack against Temple, ended in a loss in the Taxslayer Bowl, and the din echoing from Happy Valley was audible to the rest of the college football world.
But the Fire Franklin train has lost some steam this fall. Penn State is a respectable 4-2, with losses coming only at the hands of No. 1 S&P+ ranked Michigan and seriously-we’re-not-rivals Pittsburgh. The Nittany Lions are the No. 20 S&P+ team in the country, falling from No. 17 thanks to their bye this past week. This is, at long last, a quality football team, if not yet the caliber of program the fans in Happy Valley were looking for by year three of Franklin’s leadership.
Ohio State, meanwhile, is coming off of the opposite of a bye week: a matchup with a top-10 foe that went an extra period. (Maybe Wisconsin fans should rename their website "Buckeyes’ 5th Quarter." Just a free idea.) Against a quality Badger defense, the Ohio State offense was only successful in fits and starts, with a few great drives punctuated by real head-scratchers and rain-drenched frustration.
Still, Urban Meyer’s team proved in the end to be too talented and too well-coached to drop a game against one of the least-efficient offenses in the country. And for all of the problems cropping up in the Buckeye passing game, the three-headed run game looks as strong as ever. We forget that this was supposed to be rebuilding year for Ohio State, that one or even two losses at this point in the season really wouldn’t have been unthinkable given what we thought we knew in August. The team has certainly looked its age at times, but this has been anything but a rebuild. What we’ve witnessed instead is more like an evolution: a blueprint for how a team gets better despite losing half a roster’s worth of NFL talent.
There’s a lot to like about Ohio State heading into this matchup with Penn State; there’s also plenty to be afraid of. Let’s dive a little deeper.
Ohio State advantages
The secondary. At this point it’s no secret that the Buckeyes boast one of the best pass defenses in the country. This week they’ll be tasked with stopping sophomore QB Trace McSorley, who has struggled at times from the gun despite having the name of a trigger-happy Irish detective from a noir film. McSorley has completed just 58.2% of his passes while throwing for 8 TDs and 3 interceptions. The speed and football IQ of the Buckeye corners means he’ll have little margin for error, and they should be able to force him into making some mistakes.
Apart from receivers Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton, a name to look for in the pass-catching corps is TE Mike Gesicki. The Buckeyes struggled early in coverage against Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli, who was able to leak out and find space against defenders in zone looks. The Nittany Lions could try to replicate that early success with Gesicki, an imposing target at 6’6 and 252 pounds.
Causing havoc. Havoc rate, the measure of how often a defense is able to turn plays into a loss of yards, fumble, interception, or pass breakup, has been a big contributor to the Buckeyes’ success on defense this season. The defensive line has proved particularly adept at creating these kinds of plays, ranking eighth in the country; with players like Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, and Jalyn Holmes, it’s not hard to fathom why. These four DEs, who the Buckeyes occasionally play all at once in the "Rushmen" package on passing downs, create chaos for opposing offenses at a ridiculous clip.
Just ask Alex Hornibrook.
Special teams. By S&P+, Ohio State has the No. 2 special teams unit in the country. That encompasses everything from the golden boot of punter Cameron Johnston to the big-play potential of the Buckeye return men. Johnston is the real star of the special teams show, and though he’s only been called upon to punt 21 times through six games, he’s made the most of those opportunities. 17 of those 21 kicks have either landed inside the 20-yard-line or had a fair catch called, good for an 81% clip of burying opponents deep. Penn State is a lowly 105th nationally in punt returns, so there’s a huge mismatch here.
Kicker Tyler Durbin has made eight of eight field goal attempts and 28 of 29 extra points; he put his ice water veins on full display in a hostile Madison environment last week. The Buckeyes are really, really good on the game’s most underrated downs.
Penn State advantages
Explosive potential on the ground. There’s a guy named Saquon Barkley in the Penn State backfield, and he’s worth worrying about. Barkley is a big play threat, and the Nittany Lions have done a good job of letting him run—they’re sixth in the country in rushing S&P+, meaning they’ve consistently taken advantage of field position and created explosive plays.
Last week, the Buckeye defense struggled to contain the run in the first half, letting Corey Clement gain 110 yards in the game’s first 30 minutes. (He was held to 54 more in the second half and OT.) That should give Buckeye fans some pause. Barkley is a better back than Clement, and if the tackling doesn’t improve this time around the Nittany Lions may be hanging around in similar fashion.
Explosive potential in the air. The advanced stats present a bizarre profile for Penn State’s offense, who are No. 2 nationally in passing S&P+ but just 92nd in passing success rate—plays that go for 50% of the required yardage on first down, 70% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down. They’re also No. 5 in IsoPPP, the measure of just how explosive a team is when it does run a successful play.
Translation: the Penn State passing offense isn’t at all consistent, but when they do get a play that moves the chains, they tend to move the chains a long way downfield. The Buckeyes, 97th in pass defense IsoPPP, represent the converse: they don’t allow many big plays, but when they do, they’re biiiiiiig plays. The real-life implication here? Penn State could very well end up with, like, a 70-yard passing TD at some point in the second quarter, rendered meaningless by the final score but still statistically unsurprising.
F/+ projection: Ohio State 32.8, Penn State 22.1
Win probability: Ohio State 73%
This is one of those instances in which the Vegas line and the advanced stats prediction are pretty far apart. The Buckeyes opened as a 20.5 point favorite in Sin City, despite the strong Nittany Lion defense and James Franklin’s occasionally feisty offense.
Either way, the Buckeyes are double-digit favorites, which feels about right. Ohio State was a different team in the second half last week against Wisconsin, demonstrating Urban Meyer’s prowess at making halftime adjustments, and the team cut way down on penalties after racking up a lot of dirty laundry in previous weeks.
It’s not Penn State’s fault. They’re just running into an Ohio State team looking to get back on track as a college football juggernaut.
For the next few months, we are creating #Strangewiches, unexpectedly delicious sandwiches that embody the spirit and culture of your favorite college town that you can't find on a menu anywhere! For *THE* Ohio State University, our friends at SB Nation and Eater helped select the best ingredients to create the BEST, and most strange, #Strangewich for your tailgate in Columbus. Ingredients below!
Ohio State [Not so Sloppy Joe: swiss cheese, ground beef, barbecue sauce, worcestershire sauce, mayo, pumpernickel bread]