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Ohio State special teams could prove a deciding factor vs. Penn State

The Buckeyes will need to clean up a lot of the blunders they had against Maryland.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

“How can Ohio State beat Penn State next Saturday in the Big Ten’s Game of the Year? By embracing the rivalry in the wake of Big Ten champion Penn State;s 24-21 upset last year.”

-Bill Livingston, The Plain Dealer

The Ohio State Buckeyes are coming off a bye week that could prove a most-critical factor in its battle against Penn State this weekend in what is widely considered the game of the year for the Big Ten conference.

Last season, the Buckeyes were on the second leg of one of the toughest two-game stretches envisioned in the Big Ten. After defeating eighth-ranked Wisconsin in overtime in Madison, Wisc., Ohio State headed to Happy Valley to face a surging Penn State. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, had an extra week to prepare—as they were coming off a bye week. This past weekend, the college football world saw what Penn State could accomplish after a bye as the Nittany Lions absolutely routed Michigan by a 42-13 margin. As Penn State did this past weekend, the Buckeyes will need to bring something new to the Horseshoe Saturday to keep their visitors on their toes.

From a functional perspective, Urban Meyer’s squad needs to focus in particular on the special teams disasters that haunted the Buckeyes against Maryland two weeks ago, and which proved to be the difference maker in favor of Penn State in last year’s matchup when the Nittany Lions returned a blocked field goal for what proved to be the winning score. More recently, field goals were both missed AND blocked, punts shanked and kickoffs returned against for touchdowns versus the Terps. The Buckeyes will have a lot of cleanup to do to mitigate these mistakes against a powerful opponent.

In addition, containing Heisman-frontrunner Saquon Barkley--obviously--will be a priority for the Ohio State defense. However, that need is easier said than done, as Michigan tried and failed to keep Barkley’s antics at bay. The Buckeyes will lean on the likes of defensive end Nick Bosa to contain the dual threat of Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley.

“We really haven’t brought it up too much this year, but it really shows how much something like that--it’s really such a freak play...for them to block it, pick it up and score the touchdown. It doesn’t happen that often.”

-Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger, via Tim May, The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State’s loss last season to Penn State could have proved an absolute disaster--a mark on the season that eliminated the Buckeyes from all hopes of a berth in the College Football Playoff. As it turned out, Ohio State managed to rally and earn a bid to the CFP despite the loss, leaving Penn State with a spot in the Rose Bowl facing USC. Much of that decision, in retrospect, may have hinged on the manner in which Ohio State lost, rather than the way in which the Nittany Lions won. Instead of being blown out from the start, or creating a number of egregious errors on offense and defense, it was a blunder on special teams--what kicker Sean Nuernberger called a “freak play”--that led to the winning score for Penn State. Late in the fourth quarter, cornerback Grant Haley, playing on special teams, returned Tyler Durbin’s blocked field goal attempt 60 yards for a touchdown. Earlier in the game, a blocked punt ultimately led to three more points for the Nittany Lions.

The win was Penn State’s first over the Buckeyes since 2011, and head coach James Franklin’s first over a ranked team. Even more impressive was that, even at that point in the season, Penn State was not recognized for the surging power that it was, and was not even ranked in the AP Poll prior to its matchup with the Buckeyes. And while many blamed quarterback J.T. Barrett for deficiencies in the passing game (which did manifest later in the season and were blatant during the bowl game against Clemson), errors in special teams really were the downfall of the Buckeyes against Penn State.

Unfortunately, those deficiencies seem to have continued into this season, as was evidenced in Ohio State’s still-dominant win over Maryland. While Meyer has worked hard to correct since (special teams play versus Nebraska proved much stronger, excepting a kickoff that went out of bounds and a poor hold on a separate kickoff), the Buckeyes will need to stay tight on special teams against a much stronger foe Saturday to avoid the perils they faced last year.

“Franklin has signed three consecutive top-20 recruiting classes according to 247sports.com. Those classes have given Penn State a Big Ten Championship and have the Nittany Lions undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country.”

-Tim Bielik, Cleveland.com

There is no doubt that Urban Meyer had built a recruiting empire during his tenure at Ohio State. In fact, the Buckeyes have had a top-10 recruiting class every year Meyer has been head coach, and Ohio State has topped the Big Ten in each instance. Even so, while Jim Harbaugh and Michigan hang around the periphery, James Franklin and Penn State have been quietly rebuilding a formidable set of classes as the Nittany Lions bounce back from NCAA sanctions.

Franklin is entering his fourth season as head coach, and has managed to put together a top-20 class in each of the past three years. While some prospects, like four-star running back Saquon Barkley, have matched and even exceeded expectations, Franklin has also managed to find diamonds in the rough--like three-star quarterback Trace McSorley, who has proven to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Meyer definitely has the edge when it comes to big name recruits, as the Buckeyes have seven five-star recruits to Penn State’s one (coincidentally, a sophomore running back who has has just 37 career carries backing up Barkley). Even more impressive, all of Meyer’s five-stars are either freshmen or sophomores, and have plenty of time to grow and develop their talents.

Moving down to the four-star recruits, Ohio State dwarfs the Nittany Lions with 55 compared to 33. Nearly all of Ohio State’s starting offense (J.T. Barrett, every lineman, the top-six receivers and top-two running backs) fall into this category. In addition to Barkley, wide receiver Juwan Johnson has also proven to be a strong four-star pan-out for the Nittany Lions.

Penn State has significantly more three-stars than the Buckeyes, and have filled out their roster with players in this category, including McSorley, who has started for the past two seasons.

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