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Starting fast will be crucial for Ohio State against Penn State

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Finding a rhythm and winning the passing downs battle are musts this week.

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NCAA Football: Ohio State at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The last time we saw the 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes was certainly a moment to remember. After a sluggish first half that reminded many of a game that I’ve somehow already forgotten from last year, the Buckeyes picked themselves up off the mat and earned a tough, overtime victory in Madison, Wisconsin, which —by the way— also happens to be their 20th road win in a row. The reward for their gutsy performance? A trip to Penn State this week; For another night game in a crazed stadium, and another chance to extend their ridiculous road winning streak, and keep themselves in the thick of the playoff race. So not much, right?

The Nittany Lions come into Saturday’s game 4-2, having only lost a tough battle to Pittsburgh, and not having much of a battle with Michigan. Penn State is genuinely improved this season, and despite my personal preference for making fun of anything James Franklin related, the Nittany Lions present a ton of potential problems for Ohio State.

Between Penn State coming off a bye, Saquon Barkley’s ability, their bizarrely explosive passing downs offense, and a raucous crowd, the Buckeyes will have their hands full, especially after such an emotion win last week. So with that in mind, here are five things to watch for on Saturday night:

Prep Time

One of the major themes from last week’s game was how different Wisconsin looked offensively compared to previous weeks. Coming off a bye, the Badgers ran at least four new concepts, —not including the jet sweep to Jazz Peavy that repeatedly chewed up yards— keeping Buckeye defenders (and coaches) off balance in the first half.

With almost two weeks to prepare, Wisconsin’s coaching staff developed a good gameplan, and though Ohio State adjusted in the second half, it was almost enough to win. Penn State is coming off a bye of their own this week, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them put up the same fight.

Happy Valley will be rocking, and the Buckeyes would do well to not get themselves in another early rut. It will be interesting to see if they have a quicker counter to some of the different looks Penn State throws at them on each side of the ball. As Matt Brown and I discussed on this week’s podcast, it isn’t far-fetched to think Penn State wins tomorrow, and from my perspective, a lot of that has to do with how Ohio State starts the game.

If the Buckeyes have some early success in each phase, it should not only give them confidence, but also keep the crowd at a simmer. If they can’t, we may be looking at the same type of game last week’s was, and maybe a loss.

Rhythm

To avoid the same problems as last week, it’s crucial that the passing game finds its grove from the get-go. Penn State’s defense should provide the opportunity, as they rank 103rd in 1st Quarter Defensive S&P+, and have consistently let opposing quarterbacks shred them (107th in 1st quarter QB rating). Unfortunately, Ohio State’s offense hasn’t shown the ability to consistently do that yet. What they did in the second half against Wisconsin may provide some hope, though.

After finishing only 6/14 for 81 yards in the first half, Barrett and co. exploded (for them) in the second half and overtime, completing 11/16 passes for 145 yards, including the game-winning touchdown to Noah Brown. For whatever reason, the Buckeyes found a rhythm through the air, with Barrett making some of the most impressive throws of his career, and the wide receivers stepping up after what was a rough start against the Badger secondary.

It’s not clear why the Buckeyes passing game has struggled so mightily to start games this season, but it does seem like once they get into a rhythm, they’ve been able to supplement an already dangerous ground attack with an efficient and (sometimes) explosive passing game. Let’s see if they can make that a reality from the jump, and not just when the game is on the line.

Hope to contain

in recent years, a lot of opposing team’s inner monologues before playing Ohio State have probably gone like this:

“Well, we’re not going to completely stop Miller/Hyde/Elliott/Bosa/Lee/Barrett etc. so we’ve got to limit the damage they do.”

It’s a smart line of thinking. Truly great players are almost always going to find ways to get theirs eventually, but opposing teams must find ways to limit them. Whether that’s forcing other players to beat you, making tweaks to your scheme, etc. it’s a tall task to contain a legitimate star in college football, and one that Ohio State’s defense faces this week.

Touted as a future first-round pick by Meyer, running back Saquon Barkley has the ability to single-handedly keep the Nittany Lions in tomorrow’s game. The true sophomore torched the Buckeyes for 194 yards rushing in last year’s contest —not including a long touchdown called back for holding— and is Penn State’s greatest offensive threat. After the run defense’s poor performance against Wisconsin, the need to contain Barkley is even greater.

The good news is that Penn State struggles to get a push on standard downs, (125th in Standard Down Line Yards per Carry) while the Buckeye defense has thrived (1st). They’ll need to play at that form if they’re to limit Barkley.

You should be watching Barkley anyway because of how good he is, but keep a particularly close eye on his performance on standard downs. He’ll no doubt break some impressive runs, but if the defense can contain the damage, they should be set for an epic battle on passing downs.

Rushmen, Rushmen, Rushmen

For all its flaws, Penn State’s offense has been extraordinary when they’ve needed to be. The Nittany Lions rank 1st in Passing Downs S&P+, largely from generating an insane amount of explosion (2nd in Passing Downs IsoPPP). What they lack in efficiency is more than made up for in explosiveness, as evidenced by quarterback Tracy McSorley’s 14 yards per completion average.

So while Barkley is easily Penn State’s best player, McSorley’s ability to convert on passing downs may well be the determining factor in the game. Luckily, Ohio State’s defense has their own specialty on passing downs:

Good luck

It’s a good bet that the Buckeyes’ ‘rushmen’ package of Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, Nick Bosa, and Sam Hubbard will see its most significant use so far this season, given the opponent, and the situations it will likely be in.

The Penn State line hasn’t exactly been great in these situations (73rd in Passing Downs sack rate) So it wouldn’t be surprising for McSorley to be under pressure for most of the game. If he is, it could lead to....

Pick six university

Who could ever forget? Always be on the lookout for this when it comes to Penn State.