The Penn State Nittany Lions have weapons on both side of the ball. On offense, quarterback Trace McSorley is the life and soul of the No. 9 team in the country—and we talked a little about him yesterday. On defense, the person to keep an eye on is defensive end Shareef Miller.
Currently, Miller’s team leading three sacks has attributed to 25 lost yards for opposing offenses. Granted, two of those sacks came against Kent State, but the fact still remains: give the junior Bednarik Award watch list candidate a little wiggle room, and your QB is gonna have a bad time. Last season, Miller took hold of the DE spot, and earned third-team Big Ten honors with five sacks and six tackles for loss.
In a defense that only returned a couple of starters from last season’s Fiesta Bowl run, Miller is one of core staples of PSU’s vaunted (and deep) defensive line. This could be a big problem for the Ohio State Buckeyes, as offensive line play has left a lot to be desired.
Ever since facing the Oregon State Beavers in Week 1, the Buckeyes’ running attack hasn’t produced the electricity we thought that it would, considering that Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins were splitting time in the backfield; figuratively, instead of getting thunder and lightning, we’ve gotten moderate rain with a stray lightning bolt accompanied by a faint thunder roar in the distance.
Weber’s hasn’t come close to matching his career day (186 yards) against the Beavers, and with him coming off an injury sustained against Tulane last week, testing to see if you’re 100 percent against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten is not an optimal strategy. If Miller and fellow end Yetur Gross-Matos are able to bust through the Bucks’ offensive line, then Weber and Dobbins are going to be doing a lot of work just to get back to the line of scrimmage. Fortunately for Ohio State, Gross-Matos has only started four games in his career—all four being this season—due to the retirement of Ryan Buchholz back in August. But, that’s not to say that the sophomore doesn’t contribute; he tallied half a sack and a QB hurry against Pittsburgh.
This will be a true test for the Buckeye offense—notice how I didn’t just say the offensive line. Isaiah Prince and Thayer Munford will have their hands full blocking out PSU’s frontline. Just look at what Miller can do by himself.
Miller has shown up in big games for the Nittany Lions. Ranging from in-state “rival” Pitt to Washington in the bowl game, he’s gotten through to whomever has the ball. In the highlight package linked above, he even stood up Dobbins near the line of scrimmage.
Ohio State’s offense has lost a dimension from last year. J.T. Barrett was a wild card—teams didn’t know if he was giving the ball off, keeping it himself, or was gonna fire it to a receiver. With Dwayne Haskins being a bonafide passer, defenses know he’s not going to take off and run for the sake of it. At the same time, OSU gained a dimension by having a deep ball threat. Haskins can chuck it, and hasn’t been stopped since being named starter. However when you’re passing the ball, you need time for the play to develop. If the Penn State defense, led by Miller forcing pressure, can take away some of that time, Haskins will be forced into throws. This season, TCU was about as close as the Buckeyes got to playing a real, quality team. They gave the Scarlet and Gray two quarters worth of trouble before imploding in the back half of the third quarter.
Getting a big momentum swing, especially of the double-digit scoring variety, will be hard to muster for Ohio State. Last season, Penn State had, arguably, the meltdown of the season after allowing Barrett and the Buckeyes to rally back after being down 35-20. You think those Nittany Lion players and coaches have forgotten about last year’s game?
Momentum will be squarely on the side of PSU, and every time Miller and the defense gets to Haskins, it’ll increase. The Buckeyes can afford the occasional drive to stall because of incompletions and stuffed runs. They can’t afford the drives to stall out because of a sack or big loss.
You can make the case that Penn State lost to Ohio State last season because they played too conservatively (i.e. playing not to lose) down the stretch. That won’t happen this season. The Nittany Lions will be aggressive, especially when blitzing Haskins. PSU head coach James Franklin answered a defensive strategy question prior to playing Illinois last Friday:
We’ve got to be more reckless when we blitz and when we rush at linebacker. Sometimes that running back goes to fit us up and we can be more aggressive in terms of rushing the quarterback.
Grudge matches bring out frustrations for the team that lost most recently. They play angry the second time around—that’s why it’s hard to win the rematch. Last season, Auburn beat Georgia during the regular season, but got wiped out when it mattered most in the SEC Championship Game. When both teams come to the table highly ranked, it only escalates the intensity.
Games are won in the trenches, and Saturday’s game will be no different. If the Ohio State offensive line rises to the occasion, it’ll still be an instant classic—but the outcome leans toward being a “W” for the Buckeyes. If Miller leads the Penn State assault on the line, then expect the OSU run game to be stifled and the passing game to be too heavily relied upon.