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Against Ohio State, Penn State’s offense will live and die by Trace McSorley

If the Buckeye defense shuts down the Nittany Lions’ QB, it’ll be an easy (and big) win in Happy Valley.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2012, only a select few in the Big Ten have been able to get close to toppling the Ohio State (and Urban Meyer) juggernaut. Over the past five seasons, Penn State has been able to consistently make their contests with the Buckeyes interesting. Two seasons ago, the Nittany Lions roared back— thanks to a blocked field goal being returned back for the eventual game-winning score— to defeat the Bucks; last season, Ohio State was the one to roar back thanks to a legendary performance by J.T. Barrett.

The last two meetings between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes have been instant classics. The last two meetings, at least for PSU, have been as close as they have been because of one thing: Trace McSorley.

Now a senior, McSorley has burrowed himself deep into the Penn State history books. He broke Christian Hackenberg’s records of 21 games with 200-plus yards passing— he currently has 24— and nine games of 300-plus yards of passing. He currently holds the school’s record for completion percentage (60.9 percent), and has a 0.7 percent advantage over Daryll Clark, who QBed be the Nittany Lions between 2006-09. McSorley also bested Clark’s career rushing touchdown mark of 22.

On the horizon, McSorley can also become the Penn State leader in QB rushing yards (he needs 503 more), career wins (needs three more) and passing completions (needs 108 more). Quality college quarterbacks have come through the Nittany Lion program, and McSorley is about to best all of their records before he leaves.

The most successful period in the James Franklin era has been centered around McSorley as the signal-caller. Last season’s 11-win campaign, which concluded with a win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl, followed a season that included a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance. Truthfully, PSU has been a tough cookie to crack over the last two seasons.

Shutting down McSorley needs to be priority No. 1 for the Buckeyes defense. Do that, and the cookie crumbles; don’t do that, and it’ll be a sweet evening in Whiteout conditions for Penn State. The lifeline of the Penn State offense has been built around the play of Trace. Just look back at last year’s game against Ohio State. When things went well for the Nittany Lions, it was because of QB play. When things went poorly, it was because the Buckeye defense pressured and rushed McSorley into making throws.

Even with Saquon Barkley going into the NFL Draft, the Nittany Lions still have a legitimate rusher in Miles Sanders. On Monday, Sanders split Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors with OSU’s Dwayne Haskins. A 22-carry, 200-yard outing against Illinois propelled him to that honor, and now opens a new pandora’s box for Ohio State: preventing the run-pass option.

An RPO attempt with McSorley and Sanders has very real big-play potential— especially if the Penn State offense spreads the field. With Buckeye defensive lineman Nick Bosa still recovering from core muscle surgery, the responsibility to defend the line of scrimmage falls on Jonathon Cooper, Robert Landers, Chase Young and Dre’Mont Jones. That line can hold their own, but when an All-American is absent from the fold, a production drop will be noticeable.

TCU was able to bust open big plays against the Buckeye defense; one instance, a 93-yard rush for a touchdown, showed that the OSU defense is vulnerable. The vulnerability increases even more the further away an opposing offense gets from the D-line. If McSorley or Sanders can get past the frontline, they’ll have a good shot at picking up a decent amount of yardage. Oregon State was able to do that, TCU was able to do that, and Tulane had a few plays where they were able to do that. While none of those teams were able to win, they showed that it was at least possible to break off a big play every now and then.

Last season, Ohio State was in the friendly confines of The Horseshoe when they came back against the Nittany Lions. Now, they’ll have to march into the Lion’s Den in primetime—and in a Whiteout. Stopping the efficiency and effectiveness of the pass attack will quell the noise of the crowd. But, if McSorley lights up the OSU defense— and can pull off a devastating big play occasionally— expect Beaver Stadium to be rocking and rolling all night long.

Giving momentum to a crowd (and team) on the road is a recipe for disaster. Iowa was a very winnable game last year for the Buckeyes. But costly mistakes— combined with Hawkeye QB Nate Stanley making plays— sparked the upset. Everyone wants to beat Ohio State. That feeling only escalates when they get the chance to do it at home.

Ohio State has gotten by relatively unscathed this season. Only the Horned Frogs were able to, figuratively, get close to cracking the Buckeyes. Trace McSorley can run, and he can pass, so he will have every weapon available to break the Buckeyes this weekend.

Linebacker and defensive back play has to step up for Ohio State. Whoever is covering wide receiver KJ Hamler has to be on their A-game; if Sanders gets past the line, Malik Harrison or another LB has to be able to contain him. Limiting yards after catch, and yards after contact will be the litmus test to show how effective the Buckeye defense is.

All that centers around containing McSorley.