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Players to Watch: Penn State

The Nittany Lions feature one of the nation’s top tight ends, as well as an All-Big Ten edge rusher

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Cotton Bowl Classic - Memphis v Penn State Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve got a big one on tap this weekend, folks. Ohio State will play one of its most important games of the year on Halloween night, as the No. 3 Buckeyes travel to Happy Valley to take on the now No. 18-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. Although the matchup has lost a bit of luster after PSU’s stumble in its season opener, the Nits are still an incredibly talented team, and this game will likely have massive implications in the Big Ten East.

It was a solid year for Penn State in 2019 until things went a bit south towards the end. The team won their first eight games of the year before suffering their first loss of the season at the hands of a No. 17 Minnesota squad on the road. Two games later they met up with No. 2 Ohio State, who dominated the matchup for much of the afternoon despite what seemed like a closer game with the 28-17 final score. The Nittany Lions would close out the campaign strong, defeating No. 17 Memphis 53-39 in the Cotton Bowl.

This year’s Penn State squad looks a tad different from last year’s, and a significant amount of change has occurred with the roster even just since the start of this season. Two of the team’s biggest losses at the end of last year were wide receiver K.J. Hamler and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos — both NFL Draft picks and both the top players at their respective positions for the Nittany Lions. However, since then, injuries and opt-outs have plagued the PSU depth chart.

By now you likely know that Penn State’s top linebacker — and probably best overall player on either side of the ball — Micah Parsons has opted out of this season to prepare for the NFL Draft. In addition, the team is now without its top two running backs in Journey Brown and Noah Cain, with Brown on the shelf indefinitely with a medical issue and Cain suffering a season-ending injury against Indiana.

Despite all the turnover, the Nittany Lions do return a ton of talent from last year’s team at some key positions, and even though they “lost” to the Hoosiers, they were certainly the better team in that matchup in week one and could give Ohio State a real scare if they aren’t careful.

Offensive Player to Watch: Pat Freiermuth

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Penn State at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even with Ohio State’s stellar defense last season, the Buckeyes have seen a trend of struggling in the same areas the past few years on the defensive side of the ball: covering elite tight ends, and containing mobile quarterbacks. Unfortunately, Penn State’s offense features a ton of both.

Without a doubt, the Nittany Lions’ best player on offense is tight end Pat Freiermuth. The 6-foot-5, 258-pound pass-catching TE has done it all for Penn State, and has earned the monicker “Baby Gronk” for his similarities to future NFL Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski. Almost certainly the first TE off the board in next year’s NFL Draft, Freiermuth caught 43 passes for 507 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019. He started off his 2020 campaign with a bang, catching seven balls for 60 yards and a TD against Indiana.

In the last matchup between these two teams, Ohio State actually did a pretty good job of containing Freiermuth all things considered. He still caught six passes for 40 yards, but the Buckeyes were able to limit the big plays and keep him out of the end zone thanks in large part to some great coverage by Pete Werner, who shadowed Freiermuth most of the afternoon. It will be interesting to see if the Silver Bullets employ a similar gameplan this time around, or if they have someone like Shaun Wade follow him around from the slot.

The Penn State offense does have some other weapons the Buckeyes will have to be aware of. Quarterback Sean Clifford did not look stellar throwing the ball against Indiana, getting picked off twice by the Hoosier defense, but he finished as the team’s leading rusher with 119 yards on the ground. We saw Nebraska have success running the QB last weekend, and that could come to play again on Saturday. The Nittany Lions also have Jahan Dotson split out wide, looking like a true WR1 for them last week with four catches for 94 yards and a TD.

Defensive Player to Watch: Shaka Toney

Indiana v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Justin Fields likes to hang around in the pocket as he tries to extend plays, which as Ryan Day echoed in his press conference this week, Ohio State will live with since it results in a positive gain more often than not. However, he will have to be careful in doing so this weekend, as the Penn State defensive front can’t be taken lightly.

Defensive end Shaka Toney really stood out this past weekend against the Hoosiers. Overshadowed a year ago by Gross-Matos, Toney quietly put together an incredibly impressive season. He finished the 2019 campaign with 40 total tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. In perhaps his coming out party against Indiana on Saturday, Toney led the team with seven total tackles, picking up two sacks and a QB hurry along the way.

In last year’s matchup between these teams, Gross-Matos was Ohio State’s main threat, picking up two of the team’s three sacks. Toney was quiet in that game, tallying just four tackles on the day, but with an increased role now as the clear leader along the defensive line, he will certainly hear his name called much more frequently this time around.

While Penn State’s secondary looked a bit shaky at times last week, they do return a pair of senior defensive backs in Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade. Castro-Fields was great for the Nittany Lions a year ago, finishing his junior season with two picks and eight PBUs. Wade, if you remember, had a huge game against Ohio State in the 2019 matchup, finishing the afternoon with a team-high 10 tackles and being credited with three forced fumbles and a sack.