The game we’ve all been waiting for is finally here, and no, I don’t mean Northwestern-Michigan State.
After five weeks of Pacman-ing their way through delicious cupcakes —plus a bye week— Ohio State squares up against No. 2 Penn State in a game with major national implications, and that will probably determine who wins the Big Ten East.
For Penn State, it’s a chance to prove last year wasn’t a fluke, to cement Saquon Barkley as the Heisman Trophy favorite, and firmly entrench themselves towards a spot in the College Football Playoff.
For Ohio State, it’s an opportunity to redeem last year’s bitter loss in Happy Valley, prove that the offense has indeed turned the corner (praying hands emoji), and remind everyone who the real king of the Big Ten is.
With that in mind, let’s move past the lame fluff and get to the bad jokes, plus five things to watch for tomorrow:
Avoiding the ‘J.T. Barrett left, J.T. Barrett right,’ crutch
Throughout Barrett’s four years as starting quarterback, it’s almost a given that if Ohio State needs a first down in a close game, No. 16 is running the ball. The strategy has produced one of the most hilariously good moments in program history, but more often than not, it’s resulted in some confusing outcomes. It’s one thing to put the ball in the hands of your best player with the game on the line; it’s another to revert to Tecmo Bowl-ass playcalling because you don’t trust anyone else:
This isn’t a knock on Barrett. He’s as tough as they come, and honestly, there are worse options than bludgeoning him up the middle when you need a first down. Ultimately though, it isn’t a winning strategy for the Buckeyes to utilize against Penn State, or any other top-flight team if they want to win a championship.
So, in what’s almost assuredly going to be a close game, will Meyer and Co. trust that the rest of the Buckeyes’ offensive weapons can contribute in crunch time, or will they revert to Barrett trying to gut out 20 carries once again?
Judgement day for the passing game
The best way to eliminate the “Barrett student body left/right” playcalls is for the passing game to show that the last five weeks wasn’t all smoke and mirrors. Even marginal success in the air means not letting Penn State crowd the box like they did last year:
While it’s been awesome watching Barrett and his receivers rebound from the Oklahoma game over the last month-plus, tomorrow presents the first real chance for them to show it against a top-flight defense.
You can bet that the Nittany Lions will bring up their safeties and trust their corners by themselves until Zone 6 proves they can make them pay, and that’s probably the key to whether Ohio State wins this game or not.
In short, a successful day throwing means Ohio State is in the drivers seat for a spot in the College Football Playoff by Saturday night. Another unsuccessful day, and we’re asking the same questions we did after the Oklahoma and Clemson games.
Breaking the streak
I’m sure you’ve already heard, but Penn State has allowed a total of zero first quarter points this season. In total, they’ve outscored opponents 90-0 in the opening frame, which seems good, in my opinion. Recent history doesn’t suggest Ohio State will be the first to score on them.
In their last three games versus ranked opponents (Oklahoma, Clemson, Michigan), the Buckeyes haven’t scored in the first quarter, and have averaged a meager 3.3 yards per play. Spoiler: That probably won’t cut it against the No. 2 team in the country that likes to kill its opponents right off the bat. Ohio State doesn’t have to score in the first quarter to win tomorrow, but it sure would go a long way towards helping them win.
Defending Saquon Barkley
Michigan linebacker Mike McCray is a very good football player. He’s without question one of the best defenders in the Big Ten. At 6’4”, 242 pounds, he has the size to play inside, and is quick enough to have registered seven tackles for loss this season. What he’s not built for is covering Saquon Barkley:
One of the reasons Michigan got dirt-napped so bad last week was that players like McCray were put into unwinnable situations against Barkley, and Penn State made them pay. He’s going to produce no matter what, but Michigan’s apparent lack of strategy for defending him meant that they didn’t really defend anyone at all.
Whether Ohio State opts for Iowa’s plan of letting Barkley run wild, and clamping down on everyone else, or making it the focal point of the defense to stop him like Northwestern and Indiana tried to do, literally any strategy would be better than what Michigan came up with.
Keep an eye on Jerome Baker’s play-to-play movements, as he’s the linebacker best suited to match up with Barkley’s athleticism. If they don’t go that route, Greg Schiano might opt to just trust that Buckeyes’ talented defensive line can limit his damage. Either way, No. 26 is going to be a handful.
Avoiding the big mistake
Here are some things Ohio State did in last year’s game that should have been more than enough to win:
- Outgained Penn State by over 100 yards.
- Converted seven more third downs, plus a fourth down.
- Held a 15 minute time of possession advantage, and ran 27 more plays.
- Forced a turnover and didn’t commit one.
- Held a 19-13 advantage in first downs.
In all, the Buckeyes had a 64% win expectancy, but two huge special teams plays ultimately changed the tide of the game. Tomorrow is probably going to be another close game, and a clean day on special teams could mean the difference between winning and losing.
That starts with not kicking the ball to Barkley. He already has one kickoff return touchdown, and giving him any more chances to beat you seems like an unwise decision, especially for an Ohio State kick coverage group that’s been bad (111th in kickoff success rate).
By almost any measure, Ohio State should win this game. They’re more talented, have a better offense and defense, and are playing at home in what will be a crazy environment. But as we saw last year, one special teams play can change everything, and that has to be worrisome given what we’ve seen from Ohio State’s third phase this season.