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Ohio State’s Jerome Baker is at his best when the lights shine brightest

The Buckeyes All-World LB is no stranger to balling out in marquee matchups.

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

Ohio State’s defensive line deservedly gets heaps of praise from the media and opposing coaches alike, but the linebacker trio of Chris Worley, Dante Booker and Jerome Baker is one of the better units you’ll see. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Baker in particular, as the first-team preseason All-American is coming off a season where he starred alongside Raekwon McMillan and generated some of the season’s biggest highlights:

Baker’s sideline-to-sideline speed makes him more than capable of holding up against both the run and pass alike. He’s second on the team with 29 tackles this season, and has also been comfortable in the opponent’s backfield with four tackles for a loss and two sacks. Baker is a stud, and his status as the team’s most-versatile defender means he’s first in line to take away Penn State’s Heisman-frontrunner Saquon Barkley.

Of course, Baker isn’t a stranger to balling out in big games:

Still, it’s going to take an extraterrestrial effort to slow down Barkley. The Buckeyes appear as qualified as anyone to do so, as both Baker and Booker run 4.4-second 40-yards dashes. Chris Worley is quicker and better in coverage than your typical MIKE linebacker — but he’ll need to prove it. Last season the Nittany Lions attempted to exploit McMillan’s perceived lack of coverage skills with some well-designed motion and a wheel route from Mr. Barkley:

The Buckeyes managed to hold Barkley without a catch during each of their last two contests, but he’s been an entirely different monster in the passing game this season. Barkley posted a respectable 28/402/4 receiving line as a sophomore, and already has gone for 32/448/3 in seven games this season. Baker and Booker will likely draw Barkley in coverage out of the backfield, with Damon Webb and Jordan Fuller also seeing time when Barkley splits out into the slot.

The Buckeyes haven’t had much of an answer for Barkley as a runner. He’s gained 293 yards on 38 carries against Ohio State over the past two seasons, good for an average of 7.7 yards per rush. Still, Barkley is yet to find the endzone against the Buckeyes, and the Nittany Lions have only scored three offensive touchdowns in their last eight quarters against Ohio State. A bend-but-don’t-break strategy against an offensive as explosive as Penn State can make the fan nervous, and it’d be encouraging to see the Buckeyes find a way to create some negative plays to keep Penn State behind the sticks.

The Buckeyes need to do a better job containing Barkley in the run game this time around, and that starts with Baker continuing to make life miserable for running backs in all facets of the game:

The matchup between Barkley and Baker hasn’t gone unnoticed on the Buckeyes side, and Baker is more than up for the challenge:

“I take it as a one-on-one competition to see who’s better ... That’s a great player, for sure. I’m excited to go against him, definitely guard him one-on-one. You’ve just really got to see who’s better and go out there and compete.”

The Buckeyes have played well since their loss against the Sooners and are in a position to correct that early-season mistake. A win over the Nittany Lions on Saturday will vault Ohio State into the forefront of playoff contention, and Baker’s ability to help contain Barkley will be one of the biggest deciding factors in achieving that goal.