The author Jim Harrison died last year at the age of 78. He was as august a personage as will likely ever emerge from the state of Michigan, the kind of person who smoked life to the filter and told of its joys in fiction and non-, in poems and in cookbooks. He was, it feels safe to say, one of the last century's truest experts in the wondrous things life has to offer us.
Harrison once wrote that "humans are ill-prepared for the miraculous. It's too much of a jolt and the human soul is not spacious enough to deal with it. What happens when we sense and see the eternal in the ordinary present?"
A fair question, to be sure. And one made all the more difficult to stomach knowing that it's watching Saquon Barkley run with a football that occasionally makes me feel that way, like I'm witnessing something of the eternal. He is a transcendent talent, and rooting against him really sucks, is what I'm saying.
Barkley is a terrifyingly skilled runner, receiver, and returner. Ohio State has the unenviable task of trying to contain him and outscore him this coming weekend. How in the world are they going to do that?
Name: J.K. Dobbins
Height/Weight: 5'10, 208 lbs.
Line: 100 carries, 775 yards, 5 TDs; 7 receptions, 65 receiving yards
Dobbins is obviously a tremendous talent himself, and the great news is that he doesn't remotely have to try to do things alone—his nominal backup, Mike Weber, was a 1,000-plus yard back last season, and J.T. Barrett is as capable a runner as you'll find at the QB position.
That loaded backfield is really going to matter when the Nittany Lions come into Columbus hoping to take a second consecutive game from the Buckeyes. Despite steamrolling their way to the No. 2 spot in the AP and Coaches' polls, James Franklin's team has actually been relatively pedestrian when it comes to defending the run: 47th in rushing defense by S&P+, 30th in preventing explosive run plays, and 89th in power success rate (which gauges a team's ability to stop runs from short yardage on 3rd and 4th down).
Given that Penn State has faced just one rushing attack that could even be considered "pretty good" (Michigan, No. 26 by S&P+), that doesn't bode well for the Nittany Lions. The Buckeyes boast the fourth-best ground game in the country, and containing the three-headed monster of Dobbins, Weber, and Barrett will be a tall task for Franklin's squad.
Still, the Nittany Lions are loaded with talent on D. Linebacker Koa Farmer and defensive end Shareef Miller have combined for 14 run stuffs and 10 tackles for loss this season, while safety Marcus Allen has four run stuffs of his own to go with his two forced fumbles. It'll be the toughest defensive battle the Buckeyes have faced so far in 2017.
What to watch for
While the Nittany Lions are middling against the run, they've been outstanding against the pass all season. It'll prove to be a stiff test for J.T. Barrett, who seems to have found his passing rhythm anew in the Buckeyes' last five games against overmatched opponents. One backbreaking interception (and the inevitable ensuing Barkley TD) could turn this entire game in favor of PSU.
Given that, look for a heavier dose of both Dobbins and Weber than we've gotten in the last few weeks while the Buckeyes were on cruise control. Urban Meyer's ground game is one of the best in the country at avoiding stuffs, carrying for five-plus yards at a time, and picking up first downs. If he can get that going early against Franklin's defense—Dobbins finding the edge for a few explosive gains, Weber moving the chains in short yardage—it will be Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley trying to keep pace with the Buckeyes, not vice versa.