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Ohio State vs. Penn State: 2018 game preview and prediction

After the last two meetings have been decided by a total of four points, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are primed for another classic in State College on Saturday night.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

After easily closing up their non-conference schedule with a 49-6 win over Tulane last week, Ohio State hits the road for their toughest game of the season so far, when they take on Penn State under the lights in State College. The Buckeyes come into their showdown with the Nittany Lions riding a nine-game winning streak, which is the second-longest active streak in the nation. Penn State sports almost as long of a winning streak as Ohio State, earning victories in their last eight contests.

Last time out

After serving a three-game suspension to open the season, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer return to the sidelines last week, and the Buckeyes left little doubt in the result, jumping out to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. The Buckeyes used to a balanced passing attack to put the Green Wave away quickly, with 14 Ohio State players catching a pass in the blowout victory.

A storied series history

Now Ohio State will head to State College, hoping to avoid a similar fate as 2016, when the Buckeyes fell to Penn State, 24-21, in overtime. The Penn State win snapped a four-game winning streak by Ohio State in Happy Valley. The Buckeyes hold a 18-14 edge in the all-time series with the Nittany Lions, and are 7-6 on the road against Penn State.

Saturday night’s game marks the ninth time in series history in which both teams have entered the game ranked in the AP Top 10, with the Buckeyes winning five of those eight meetings. The most recent meeting with both teams coming into the game ranked in the Top 10 came just last year. Ohio State erased a 21-3 second quarter deficit, and took the lead for the first time in the game with 1:48 left in the fourth quarter. The 16-yard Marcus Baugh touchdown reception from J.T. Barrett was the final score of the game, Ohio State won 39-38.

Offensive firepower

Ohio State enters Saturday’s contest with the second-highest scoring offense in the country, averaging 54.5 points per game. The Buckeyes are third in the country in total offense, averaging 599 yards per game. In each of their first four games this season, the Buckeyes have scored at least 40 points and rolled up 500 yards of offense.

Air raid

Unlike in previous years, Ohio State has been doing most of their damage through the air this year, with the 365.8 yards per game the Buckeyes are averaging through the air ranking sixth in the country. 17 Buckeyes have recorded a catch this year, with nine different Ohio State players having caught a passing touchdown.

With each performance so far this year, Dwayne Haskins continues to move his way up the ladder when it comes to Heisman Trophy candidates. In four games this year, Haskins already has thrown 16 touchdown passes, which is the second-most through four games for a Big Ten quarterback. Haskins is the first Big Ten quarterback to throw five touchdown passes in two of the first four games of the season.

What has been most impressive so far this year about Haskins has been his accuracy. Last week against Tulane, Haskins completed 21 of the 24 passes he attempted, marking the second time this season where he has only misfired on three passes in a game. For the year, Haskins is completing 75.7 percent of his passes, which ranks second in the country.

It’s easy to understand why Haskins has been so accurate when taking into account the talented stable of wide receivers on the Ohio State roster. Senior wide receiver Parris Campbell had his best game of the season last week, hauling in eight catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns. With the effort, Campbell was able to go over the 1,000 yard receiving mark for his career, joining K.J. Hill, who hit the same mark the previous week against TCU.

Scary Terry

The wild card in the receiving corps for Ohio State on Saturday night will be senior Terry McLaurin. After opening the season by averaging 34.4 yards per catch on five catches in the first two games, McLaurin is only averaging 11.5 yards per catch on his four catches in the past two games. With Penn State’s inexperience in the secondary, if McLaurin can get a couple of early catches for big gains, it could open up the passing game even more for Haskins and company.

The forgotten

With all of the attention being paid to what Ohio State is doing on the strength of Dwayne Haskins’ arm, the running game has been largely forgotten. While it’s hard to find fault with the Buckeyes when they are averaging 233 yards per game on the ground, the rushing attack hasn’t been quite as feared as in recent years.

After rushing for a season-high 121 yards in the victory over TCU, sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins saw light use against Tulane, rushing for just 55 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Dobbins has struggled to find much open space on the ground this year, with a 21-yard run against Rutgers being his longest of the season.

The Buckeyes might need Dobbins to shoulder more of the load in the rushing game on Saturday night, as fellow running back Mike Weber left last week’s game against Tulane with a foot injury. Head coach Urban Meyer said Weber will be available for the Buckeyes on Saturday night, but the question remains as to just how effective Weber will be as he tries to recover from the foot strain. After rushing for 186 yards in the season-opening win over Oregon State, Weber has just 113 rushing yards in the last three games.

All Dre’

After losing defensive end Nick Bosa until at least November after the junior suffered an injury against TCU, Ohio State’s defense had numerous players step up to hold Tulane to just six points on Saturday. 11 different Ohio State defenders recorded a tackle-for-loss against Tulane, with the most welcome surprise being from linebacker Dante Booker, who recorded his first three tackles-for-loss of the season.

Defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones continues to anchor Ohio State’s defense in Bosa’s absence, and has registered 5.5 tackles-for-loss, with three of those being sacks. After a relatively quiet week last week against Tulane, the Buckeyes will need Jones to perform like he did two weeks ago against TCU. If Jones is able to clog the middle and slow down running back Miles Sanders, it will put even more pressure on quarterback Trace McSorley to find his wide receivers, which are largely inexperienced.

Lineback to normal

The defensive unit which showed some progress last week as compared to their performance in the first three games of the season, was Ohio State’s linebackers. As mentioned earlier, Dante Booker had his best game of the season, while Baron Browning and Keandre Jones also recorded sacks.

After recording just eight tackles so far this season, if Ohio State is able to get Tuf Borland back to the level he performed at in 2017, Penn State could have an even tougher time cracking the Buckeye defense. The linebacker has been limited so far this year, but he will be available full time for the first time so far this year. In starting nine games last year, Borland registered 58 tackles.

Better late than never

Penn State opened up their Big Ten schedule last Friday with a 63-24 win over Illinois, but the score doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. The Nittany Lions trailed 24-21 early in the third quarter, but took the lead for good with a Miles Sanders 48-yard touchdown run with just over eight minutes to go in the quarter. Penn State went on to score 35 points in the third quarter to give them their second consecutive game with 63 points.

The win by the Nittany Lions over the Fighting Illini was the third straight game that Penn State has won by at least 39 points, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since 1973. The 39-point win was the largest by an FBS team that trailed in the second since 2003, when Texas reeled off 41 unanswered points to beat Oklahoma State 55-16.

After opening the season by allowing 28 points to Appalachian State in a 45-38 win in overtime, Penn State has been nearly flawless in the second half since, outscoring opponents 114-7 after halftime over the past three games. The Nittany Lions are averaging 35.5 points per game in the second half this season, and has scored 70 points in the fourth quarter.

Mr. Sandman

The star of last week’s game against Illinois for Penn State was junior running back Miles Sanders, who rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns. Sanders became the first Penn State player to rush for 200 yards and score three touchdowns in a game since Larry Johnson did so in 2002, and the sixth Nittany Lion to do so all-time. The effort by Sanders earned him Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors, which he shared with Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

The Nittany Lions have now rushed for at least 200 yards in seven straight games, but they won’t have as much help this week on the ground as they did the first four weeks of the year. Senior running back Mark Allen won’t take the field again for the Nittany Lions after suffering a season-ending injury. Allen was Penn State’s fourth leading rusher this year, behind Sanders, quarterback Trace McSorley, and freshman running back Ricky Slade.

Tracing a path to victory

After spending much of the last two years carving up opposing defenses through the air, quarterback Trace McSorley has done a lot of damage on the ground this year. The senior has rushed for six touchdowns so far this year, which is the most in the Big Ten. McSorley already has rushed for 235 yards this year, and at this current pace he’d eclipse his career-high of 491 rushing yards, which he set last year.

Even though McSorley is doing more with his legs this year, he is still dangerous through the air. McSorley owns the longest active streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass, as he has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 32 straight games. After throwing for 57 touchdowns over the past two years, McSorley has tossed eight touchdowns through four games this year.

With a big performance on Saturday night, McSorley could set yet another Penn State passing record. Currently McSorley sits 326 yards behind Christian Hackenberg for most in school history. The odds might be stacked against McSorley in setting the record against Ohio State though, with the Buckeyes holding McSorley to less than 200 yards in each of his two starts against Ohio State.

After having reliable targets like DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki last year, the Penn State receivers are still trying to find their legs. K.J. Hamler leads the Nittany Lions with 170 receiving yards, while Juwan Johnson has a team-high 12 receptions. Penn State has had some receivers make some plays this year, but they don’t quite yet have the standout receiver like they had in Chris Godwin or Hamilton of the last couple years.

Pry’s guys

Much like the receiving corps, Penn State had a lot of production to replace on defense. Even though the Nittany Lions did lose the majority of starters from last year’s defense, defensive coordinator Brent Pry did a good job at getting a lot of Penn State defensive players some on-field time.

Aside from the season opener against Appalachian State, the Nittany Lions have been rock solid on defense. Defensive end Shareef Miller is going to be a player the Buckeyes will have to keep tabs on. Miller not only led Penn State with 5.5 sacks last year, but he has registered a team-high three sacks so far this season.

Even though Penn State did lose three key linebackers from last year’s squad, they do have some upperclassmen who have stepped into those roles. Junior Jan Johnson leads the Nittany Lions with 24 tackles this year, while Cam Brown has four tackles-for-loss. Koa Farmer was credited with 48 tackles at linebacker last year, and Buckeye fans might remember him for returning a kickoff 59 yards in the second quarter in last year’s contest.

The Penn State secondary will have their work cut out for them in trying to slow down the Ohio State passing attack, but the Buckeyes would be wise to try and avoid throwing at Amani Oruwariye. After picking off four passes last year, the senior cornerback has already nabbed two interceptions this year. Safety Nick Scott also brings plenty of experience to the Penn State secondary, and was named a team captain prior to the season.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State 35, Penn State 32

Win Probability: Ohio State 56.7%

It should be no surprise this game is projected to be a close one. With the last two meetings between the schools being decided by a combined four points, Saturday night’s contest in State College should come down to the wire. The winner on Saturday night will have an early leg up in the race for the Big Ten East crown.

With the offensive firepower both teams have displayed so far this year, along with the holes they have shown at times on defense this year, fans should expect a pretty high scoring game on Saturday.

Two of the best quarterbacks in the country will go toe-to-toe. The edge in experience goes to Trace McSorley, but Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins has shown poise in relief of J.T. Barrett last year in Ann Arbor, as well as in his first game away from Ohio Stadium as starter, when the Buckeyes took on TCU a few weeks ago. The crowd at Penn State will be like one Haskins has never seen before, but the experienced wide receivers, along with the running game Ohio State has with Dobbins and Weber should give the Buckeyes the tools on offense they need to squeak by a tough Penn State squad.