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Ohio State vs. Penn State: 2019 game preview and prediction

A showdown at Ohio Stadium is on tap for Saturday afternoon, with the Buckeyes looking to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game when they host Penn State

Indiana at Penn State Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

After steamrolling Maryland and Rutgers the last two weeks, Ohio State will see a serious uptick in competition the rest of the year. This week the Buckeyes will close out their home schedule when they host Penn State. A win over the Nittany Lions would secure a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game for Ohio State for the third consecutive season.

Recent history versus Penn State

Over the past three seasons, Penn State has been Ohio State’s toughest opponent. After the Nittany Lions won 24-21 in overtime in 2016, the Buckeyes have needed fourth quarter comebacks to earn one-point wins over Penn State in each of the last two years. Last year the Nittany Lions used a Miles Sanders touchdown to go up by 12 points with eight minutes to go in the game, but a couple Dwayne Haskins touchdowns passes put the Buckeyes up 27-26. This is the third straight year both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the AP Poll ahead of their meeting.

Last week for the Bucks

The Buckeyes are coming off a 56-21 in over Rutgers last week, extending their streak of wins by at least 24 points to 10 games. Ohio State was able to get their starters some work early in the game against the Scarlet Knights before the backups took over. The victory secured the eighth consecutive season of at least 10 wins for the Buckeyes, and the 14th time in the last 15 years Ohio State has reached that mark.

The Chase is on

Ohio State wasn’t affected much by the loss of Chase Young’s suspension the last two weeks, but the Buckeyes will certainly need the defensive end the rest of the year. Young returns this week after a two-game suspension after an investigation into a loan he took.

The last time Ohio State fans saw Young on the field, the junior had four sacks and two forced fumbles against Wisconsin. Young already has joined Mike Vrabel as the only Buckeyes to record at least 10 sacks in two seasons, and now he is just half a sack away from tying Vernon Gholston’s single-season school record.

Flawless Fields

Justin Fields continued his outstanding debut season at Ohio State, passing for a career-high 305 yards and four touchdowns last week against Rutgers. Fields now has 31 passing touchdowns this season to go along with 10 rushing touchdowns. The 41 total touchdowns that Fields has scored this year is second in the country behind Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts.

Most impressive about what Fields has done so far this season has been how careful he has been with the football. The sophomore quarterback has turned the football over just three times this year, throwing one interception and losing two fumbles. In a close game, Fields taking care of the football could end up being the difference between a win and a loss for the Buckeyes.

Fields isn’t the only Buckeye in the backfield who is having a stellar season. J.K. Dobbins ran for 89 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries last week against the Scarlet Knights. The junior running back is fourth in the country with 1,289 yards rushing this year, all while only having carried the football 42 times in the second half this season.

Look out Eddie

Dobbins is inching closer to Eddie George on Ohio State’s all-time rushing list, as he is now just 24 rushing yards away from passing George for third all-time. Dobbins should be able to move up to second on the school’s all-time leading rushing list before the end of the year, since he is just over 200 yards behind Ezekiel Elliott’s three-year total, but he’ll need to return to Ohio State if he wants to have a shot at passing Archie Griffin’s 5,589 yards rushing.

Wide-open receivers

K.J. Hill continues his march toward David Boston’s career receptions record, and is now just 10 receptions away from passing Boston after hauling in four catches against Rutgers. Hill has now caught at least one pass in 44 consecutive games, leaving him four games away from tying Gary Williams’ school record. Hill will pass that mark if Ohio State is able to reach the College Football Playoff Championship Game and he isn’t shut out in any of those games.

Even though Hill is closing out his Ohio State career, much of the attention among the wide receivers has been on Chris Olave this year. Last week the sophomore wide receiver caught four passes for 139 yards, raising his team-leading total to 593 yards receiving. Olave also has caught nine touchdown passes this year, which is a team-high.

The biggest change for Olave this year was after not seeing a target against Michigan State. In the four games since the win over the Spartans, Olave has at least four catches in each game, and has at least 60 yards receiving in three of those four games. The only thing missing from last week’s game for Olave was a touchdown reception, which snapped a streak of three straight games in which he has been found in the end zone.

Ohio State has a couple other wide receivers who compliment what Hill and Olave are able to do. Binjimen Victor was a key part of Ohio State’s comeback against Penn State last year, with his 47-yard catch-and-run touchdown getting the Buckeyes back into the game less than two minutes after Penn State took a 26-14 lead. Victor has 27 receptions and six touchdowns so far this year.

Garrett Wilson hasn’t been featured heavily in his freshman season, but he has been on the field enough to make an impact with his speed and hands. Wilson had the best game of his Ohio State career two weeks ago against Maryland with four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. For the year, Wilson has four touchdown catches in his first year in Columbus.

Chase & Cooper comeback

As mentioned earlier, Ohio State will get Chase Young back this week. Even though his presence wasn’t needed in an easy win against Rutgers last week, his absence showed. The Buckeyes were only able to record one sack against the Scarlet Knights, which tied a season-low. For the year, Ohio State has 42 sacks, which is nine away from tying their school record for most in a season.

Another Buckeye defensive end who could be back on the field this week is Jonathon Cooper. After spending the first four games of the season sidelined, Cooper returned against Nebraska and played the next three games before missing the last two because of injury. Cooper has just three tackles so far this season and no sacks in limited action.

Valuable experience

The loss of Young and Cooper has given some other Ohio State defensive linemen time to shine. Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday, Zach Harrison, and Javonte Jean-Baptiste have all started a game the last two weeks. The quartet have all recorded at least one sack this season, with Smith leading the group with three sacks.

Malik & his friends

Chase Young might get all the headlines on the Ohio State defense, but linebacker Malik Harrison has been the heart of the defense this year. The linebacker has done a little bit of everything so far this year for the Buckeyes. Harrison leads Ohio State with 52 tackles, with 12.5 of those being for a loss. To go along with all the tackling he does, Harrison also has two fumble recoveries and three pass breakups.

Harrison should get one of his partners in crime back next week, as it sounds like Baron Browning should be able to play against the Nittany Lions. The junior linebacker has been slowed by injuries lately, but he has been impressive when on the field. Browning has 5.5 tackles for loss so far this year and 2.5 sacks. Pete Werner and Tuf Borland round out the Ohio State linebackers that will try and slow down the Nittany Lions.

Secondary to none

Talent is overflowing in Ohio State’s secondary. Last week Shaun Wade intercepted a pass on the second play of the game, adding to Ohio State’s takeaway total this year. So far this year, Ohio State has 22 takeaways. The Buckeyes know what to do with the football immediately after the takeaways, scoring 17 times on the ensuing drive after the turnover. For the year, Ohio State has 111 points off turnovers, which is 13 more points than opponents have scored against Ohio State overall.

Along with Wade in the secondary are a couple of Buckeyes who could be playing in their last game at Ohio Stadium. Damon Arnette is a fifth-year senior, so it’s a certainty he will be playing his last home game. This also could be the last game in Columbus for Jeff Okudah, who has a decision to make after the season about declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft.

Senior day

At least 26 Buckeyes will be playing their last game at Ohio Stadium on Saturday afternoon, while a number of other players will have to make a decision about declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft in the near future. Of those in this year’s senior class, 10 Buckeyes have played in at least 40 games. Notable seniors playing in their final home game for the Buckeyes include K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, and Jordan Fuller.

Finishing a tough stretch

Penn State enters Saturday’s game wrapping up a tough stretch that has seen them play five teams ranked in the AP top 25 over the last six games. The only setback for the Nittany Lions during that stretch came two weeks ago when they lost 31-26 to a Minnesota team that was undefeated at the time.

Last time out

Last week Penn State avoided a hangover from their loss to the Golden Gophers, beating Indiana 34-27 in State College. The victory gave Penn State nine wins on the season, marking it their fourth straight season reaching nine wins. The Nittany Lions are now 22-1 all-time against the Hoosiers.

Big game James

In his sixth season as head coach at Penn State, James Franklin has put together a 54-22 record with the school. After coming over from Vanderbilt, Franklin has been a force on the recruiting trail and helped the school recover on the field from the Jerry Sandusky scandal from earlier in the decade.

Offensive overhaul

What has changed most on the field for Penn State has been their offensive prowess under Franklin. Since 2016, Penn State has recorded 18 games of at least 40 points or more. By comparison, from 2008-15, Penn State had just 16 games where they scored at least 40 points.

Red means go

The efficiency in the red zone from the Nittany Lions is a big reason why Penn State is scoring more points in recent years. This year the Nittany Lions are 37 of 41 in the red zone, with 28 of those scores being touchdowns. Since 2017, the Nittany Lions have scored on 115 of 124 trips inside the red zone, with 91 touchdowns.

Cliffs notes

Penn State had a tall task after last season in replacing quarterback Trace McSorley, but the Nittany Lions have gotten a great season out of Sean Clifford. The sophomore from Cincinnati is the first Penn State quarterback with 22 touchdown passes in the first 10 games of the season. In five games this season, Clifford has thrown at least three touchdown passes. Clifford currently sits second in the Big Ten with 2,450 yards passing.

Young but talented

Clifford isn’t the only underclassman in the backfield for Penn State, as the Nittany Lions have a couple talented running backs in Journey Brown and Noah Cain. Brown is Penn State’s leading rusher this year with 521 yards rushing. The sophomore has been dangerous the last two games, rushing for over 100 yards against Minnesota and Indiana.

Complimenting Brown is freshman Noah Cain, who made some noise with back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Iowa and Purdue. While Cain has seen his carries cut in recent weeks, he is still someone Ohio State will have to keep their eyes on when he is out on the field.

Two top targets

The star of the Penn State offense is wide receiver K.J. Hamler, who is averaging 128.1 all-purpose yards per game. Hamler has 46 catches for 791 yards and eight touchdowns so far this year. Hamler’s performance has been impressive enough to lead to him being named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award. Ohio State had a tough time slowing down the sophomore last year, as Hamler caught four passes for 138 yards and a touchdown against the Buckeyes.

Another receiver Ohio State will have to keep their eyes on this week is tight end Pat Freiermuth, who is positioning himself as one of the best tight ends in the country. The sophomore from Massachusetts had a monster game against Michigan State earlier this year, hauling in three touchdown passes. So far this season Freiermuth has seven touchdown receptions, which ties him for the lead amongst Power Five tight ends.

Magnificent Micah

Penn State doesn’t quite have a Chase Young on their defense, but sophomore Micah Parsons is making a name for himself with his play. Parsons leads Penn State with 75 tackles this season, with eight of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. With the ability to play both defensive end and linebacker, Parsons can hurt opponents from a number of angles.

Dominant defensive duo

Ohio State’s offensive line will be tested by a couple of Penn State’s talented defensive ends. Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos are tied for the team-lead with 6.5 sacks so far this year. As a team, Penn State has 33 sacks so far this season, and is averaging 7.6 tackles for loss per game.

An experienced secondary

Justin Fields will be facing his toughest test of the year when he tries to find holes against Penn State’s secondary. What makes the Nittany Lions so tough in the defensive secondary is their experience, as all four starters are juniors and seniors. Tariq Castro-Fields is tied for the team-lead with two interceptions this year, and has a team-high eight passes broken up. Senior cornerback John Reid also has two interceptions, and is just behind Castro-Fields with six passes broken up.

Summary

After two games against lesser competition, Ohio State will face what could be their toughest test so far this season. What makes this game scarier than the contest against Wisconsin last month is how tough the Nittany Lions has played Ohio State over the last three years. Even though Ohio State and Penn State aren’t technically rivals, the pressure gets ramped up when they play each other.

Ohio State has gotten a bit of a blueprint on how to beat Penn State thanks to Minnesota a couple weeks ago. The Golden Gophers showed Ohio State that Penn State can be beaten through the air. With the depth the Buckeyes have at wide receiver, the talent they have with quarterback Justin Fields, and if the Nittany Lions haven’t tightened up their performance in the secondary from the Minnesota game, Penn State could be in trouble.

While it’s likely that Ohio State’s streak of wins over 20 points this year ends on Saturday, the Buckeyes are just too talented for Penn State to pull the upset. Not only will the atmosphere at Ohio Stadium be electric with it being senior day, but the crowd will also be juiced because of the return of Chase Young. The defensive end will be primed to make up for lost time as he chases Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford around the backfield. The Nittany Lions put up a fight, but Ohio State stay undefeated as they move on to Michigan.

LGHL Prediction: Ohio State 34, Penn State 20