Two years ago, Ohio State shocked the world by winning a national championship. Penn State almost killed that dream before it ever got off the ground.
QB Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions hung tough in a game that was weird from start to finish, and the Penn State defense limited J.T. Barrett to one of his worst passing games as a Buckeye. (For reference, the Buckeyes’ leading receiver in that game was tight end Jeff Heuerman, who had three catches for 19 yards.) Ohio State blew a 17-0 lead, with Penn State tying the score in the 4th before taking a 24-17 lead in the game’s first overtime. J.T. Barrett found room to run, tying the game once more, and the Buckeyes struck again to get ahead in the second OT.
You probably recall what happened next. On fourth down, Joey Bosa barreled into RB Akeel Lynch so hard that he carried him into Hackenberg, who went down like a sack of bricks. The walk-off sack heard ‘round the world kept the season alive, and the rest is history.
Now Joey’s brother has a chance to make his own statement game against the upstart Nittany Lions.
Name: Nick Bosa
Number: 97 (duh)
Weight: 265 lbs.
Line: 12 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 sacks
The Buckeyes are so loaded on the defensive line that Bosa doesn’t get to play every snap, instead emerging as part of a rotation with Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes for the DE spot opposite Tyquan Lewis. (Things occasionally get really fun when the Buckeyes line up in their fearsome Rushmen package, getting all four stud DEs on the field at once.)
Despite the limit on his snaps in his true freshman year, Bosa’s productivity hasn’t suffered. He’s proven himself adept at getting to the quarterback—he even runs like his brother—and will continue to make his impact felt as long as there’s an opposing player to hit in the backfield.
Penn State does a few things well, and Bosa’s ability to disrupt them will go a long way toward determining the final score of this one.
The biggest name on Penn State’s offense is Saquon Barkley, the talented running back who Urban Meyer recently praised as a “first-rounder at tailback.” Barkley’s draft stock come April remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that he can hurt defenses with his skill set. He’s already found pay dirt eight times this season on the ground and once through the air.
The Nittany Lions are also better-positioned to give him room to run than in previous years, when the offensive line was so laughably bad that things like this happened. Not so in 2016. Penn State is ranked 16th in adjusted line yards, the metric that apportions credit for rushing yards between backs and their blockers; put simply, the offensive line has done a good job of opening holes for Barkley, and he’s done a good job of picking up yards through those holes. (They’ve allowed 14 sacks through six games, though, so it’s not as though they’ve solved everything.)
Penn State also showed off an effective wrinkle in the run game against Maryland two weeks ago by exploiting the read-option. The Terrapins didn’t stack the box against PSU, and QB Trace McSorley was able to make the right reads at the mesh point to maximize the offense’s yardage. McSorley went for 81 yards on 18 carries, more than enough to complement Barkley’s output of more than 200 yards. (You can read a more thorough film breakdown here.)
Ohio State’s defense isn’t Maryland’s, which is good news for Buckeye fans, but if Penn State can get the run game going early, it sets them up nicely for a backbreaking pass or two later on. (This has been kind of their M.O.—they don’t pass the ball efficiently, but when the Nittany Lions have found space for big throws, they’ve gone for six.)
What to watch for
Nick Bosa and the rest of the Ohio State defensive ends will be tasked with containing both of these types of plays, by sniffing out the read option and meeting it at the line of scrimmage, and by getting to Trace McSorley when he does drop back to pass. (Given how little time he’ll have, look for TE Mike Gesicki to be McSorley’s go-to outlet on passing downs.)
We got a good look at the ability of Bosa and co. to execute in one of these situations just last week, in a play eerily reminiscent of the 2014 play to beat Penn State:
Bosa was actually the last to the ball, but that’s four Buckeye defensive ends beating five blockers to the punch with a combination of sheer power (Lewis, Hubbard) and finesse (Holmes, Bosa). That’s a disgustingly lethal combination of talent, and the Rushmen have taken turns feasting on QBs faced with the prospect of trying to find holes in the suffocating Buckeye secondary.
If they can keep up this level of play against the Penn State o-line when McSorley drops back, they’ll be well-positioned to make the Nittany Lions one-dimensional. Even a back as talented as Saquon Barkley probably can’t beat the No. 2 team in the country by himself.