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Get to know the Penn State Nittany Lions before Saturday’s primetime matchup

We chat with our friends at ‘Black Shoe Diaries’ to see what the Buckeyes have waiting for them in Happy Valley.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

So far this season, the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0, 1-0) have withstood a trip deep into the heart of Texas against TCU; they’ve withstood the suspension of their head coach; and now they must go into a primetime Whiteout in Happy Valley without, arguably, the best defensive player in the country, Nick Bosa.

To get an idea as to what exactly the Buckeyes are going to be up against in the No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday, we talked to Aaron Yorke, a senior writer at SB Nation’s Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries about what Ohio State fans should expect from PSU on Saturday night.

LGHL: Like J.T. Barrett during his time in Columbus, it feels like Trace McSorley has been the Penn State quarterback for a decade or so. Now in this senior year he isn’t throwing as much as in recent seasons, but he seems to be even more dangerous on the ground. How do you envision the evolution of his game matching up with Ohio State’s defense, which has been strong up front, but prone to giving up plays if skill position players get in space?

Aaron Yorke: McSorley has experience on his side, and he knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. That is, he is good at deciding whether to keep the ball on a read option or hand it to Miles Sanders, the new starting tailback. The athleticism of Sanders and freshman backup Ricky Slade have allowed for many big plays to come out of the running game already, but the passing game hasn’t come along as smoothly.

The new look receiving corps has the tools to do great things — just look at what redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler has done so far — but the group’s connection with McSorley hasn’t been fluent, as you can see from the quarterback’s 54-percent completion rate. Against a defense as stout as Ohio State’s it will be important for McSorley to connect with his targets on third down in order to move the chains, but based on what we saw in the Oregon State and TCU games, the big plays against the Buckeyes will probably come from Penn State’s running game. Breaking one or two big runs will go a long way towards securing a big win.

LGHL: So far this season, Penn State has seemed to start games slowly, only to run over their opponent in the second half. Is that just a small sample size coincidence, or is there something that the team and coaching staff are doing differently from one half to the next? Can it be corrected for their first test of the season?

Aaron Yorke: Penn State was a strong second-half team last year as well, but it has been especially apparent in 2018 with Jekyll and Hyde performances against Pitt, Kent State and Illinois. Maybe it’s due to superior conditioning or maybe James Franklin is a better tactical coach than we realize. The phenomenon could just be a coincidence, but it’s hard to deny how well the Nittany Lions have played in the third and fourth quarters this season.

I think it starts with stopping the run. Both Pitt and Illinois kept the ball away from Penn State in the first half by running the ball and maintaining possession, but in both games the Nittany Lions stiffened after halftime, allowing for more offensive possessions and a more tired defense to play against.

That led to a streak of scoring drives that turned close contests into blowouts in a hurry. The Buckeyes are on another level, though, so Penn State cannot lallygag its way around the field in the first half this Saturday and rely on a second-half comeback. It’s going to take a strong effort through all four quarters.

LGHL: After destroying Ohio State in 2015 with 194 yards, the Buckeyes held Saquon Barkley to 143 yards on 33 carries over the last two seasons. How does Miles Sanders compare to what Buckeye fans are used to seeing from Barkley?

Aaron Yorke: Sanders has seen a lot of success this season due to his own powerful running and the development of the offensive line. It’s bigger, stronger and smarter than the line that Barkley ran behind, but don’t forget that Sanders is a blue-chip prospect himself, even if he doesn’t land on as many highlight reels as his predecessor.

Sanders is more of a downhill runner than Barkley, so you’re not going to see as much of the shiftiness or ridiculous hurdles that made the current NFL tailback famous. On the other hand, Sanders still has the ability to create a big gain out of nothing, so there’s no reason to sleep on him.

LGHL: So far this season, Penn State has given up only 173 passing yards per game. On the other side, Ohio State has been much more focused on the throwing the ball, putting up 366 yards per game. How will PSU’s secondary look to attack the OSU passing game?

Aaron Yorke: The Penn State pass defense has been pretty decent since allowing Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas to throw for 270 yards while leading an epic fourth-quarter comeback in the opener. Pitt wasn’t about to do anything through the air, and while both Woody Barrett of Kent State and M.J. Rivers II of Illinois put a couple of decent drives together, they both averaged fewer than six yards per attempt once the Lions got settled.

Ohio State and Dwayne Haskins are a different animal, though. Based on what Penn State let up from J.T. Barrett last year, it’s easy to imagine Haskins having a day, as he’s been ruthlessly efficient so far in 2018. Rushing four men seems like a good way to keep Ohio State’s speed in check, but Haskins will eventually find an open man when given enough time.

It might be better for Penn State to be aggressive and rely on cornerbacks Amani Oruwariye and Tariq Castro-Fields to defend the sidelines in man-to-man coverage, but then Urban Meyer’s crossing routes become an issue. It will likely take a mix of coverages if the Lions are to keep Ohio State’s potent attack off balance.

LGHL: This week’s game is going to be a primetime White Out in Happy Valley. Two questions for Buckeye fans who are going to the game: a) Is it safe to wear scarlet and gray? b) What are some places that they should visit, for either food, drink, or culture, while they are in town?

Aaron Yorke: Opposing fans should be fine wearing their colors if they avoid being obnoxious or going to close to the fraternity houses. Fortunately, the notorious frat row is out of the way and not close to any points of interest. The Creamery is a must, and it’s conveniently located on the eastern part of campus, which is closer to Beaver Stadium.

Fans who have more time should try The Waffle Shop in downtown State College for brunch, and The Tavern is the best stop for a classy dinner the night before the game. There are too many bars to mention, but if you’re into watching sports like I am, Bar Bleu is a good bet. Their Fishbowls are something else. On the other hand, if the weather is nice, it’s hard to beat drinking margaritas outside at Mad Mex.

LGHL: What do you think happens on Saturday?

Aaron Yorke: I think there will be a lot of offense on Saturday night, and it should be one of the most exciting games of the year. I’m worried about what will happen to Penn State’s offense if the running game is slowed down. McSorley hasn’t been able to connect with his targets as efficiently as I thought he would, so I think a shootout favors the Buckeyes. Ohio State wins, 45-38.

The No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes will take on the No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET in a game to be broadcast on ABC. Land-Grant Holy Land and Black Shoe Diaries will have you covered from both sides of the primetime, marquee matchup as we head into the weekend.