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Ohio State vs. Penn State: 2020 game preview and prediction

After kicking off the season with a big win in Columbus, the Buckeyes look to avoid a nightmare as they head to Happy Valley to take on Penn State on Halloween night. 

Penn State v Indiana Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It’s spooky season! And for loyal Ohio State fans, what could be scarier than heading to State College to take on Penn State on a dark and stormy Halloween night. How about doing it in an eerily empty stadium?

Okay, that might actually make things better. Also, it doesn’t look like the weather will be stormy.

In a season already full of strange twists and turns, the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes are set to head to Happy Valley to face No. 18 Penn State. After kicking off the 2020 campaign with a slasher against Nebraska, the Buckeyes look to keep their winning ways and avoid a shop of horrors on the road.

A series of pretty fortunate events

While Ohio State and Penn State don’t go way back, say, like the Buckeyes do with Illinois or Mike Myers does with the Halloween franchise, the Nittany Lions have certainly become a rival of recency. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have played every season since Penn State started playing Big Ten conference games in the 1993 season (after joining the conference in 1990). In all, Ohio State holds a 20-14 series advantage, with the Buckeyes winning three-straight since 2017.

Most recently, Ohio State took a 29-17 win over Penn State in Columbus in 2019 - a relatively large margin compared to some of the other recent games in series history. In that matchup, quarterback Justin Fields had 188 yards passing for two touchdowns, but was anchored by an outstanding performance from running back J.K. Dobbins, who had 157 yards on 36 carries, including two touchdowns.

Children of the Corn(Huskers)

Ohio State is now 1-0 after cruising to a 52-17 win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers last weekend. Despite the Huskers jumping to an early lead after scoring on their opening drive, the Buckeyes took a 24-14 lead into the half and finished with a 35-point win that was more than enough to cover the hefty spread.

Penn State, meanwhile, finds itself in the surprising position of falling 0-1 after dropping an overtime decision to Indiana (who now finds itself with its highest ranking in 27 years). The Nittany Lions fell following a controversial two-point attempt that wound up sealing the game for the Hoosiers.

Get Out (of Columbus)

Ohio State has been utterly dominant at home in recent seasons (they haven’t lost since Sept. 9, 2017), but the Buckeyes haven’t been slouches on the road either.

The last time Ohio State lost on the road was Oct. 20, 2018 to Purdue. The final score? 49-20. The feeling? Spine-chilling. The previous season, the Buckeyes fell in similar surprising fashion (by a final score of 55-24) to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

However, those games are the exceptions rather than the rule, and the fact is the Big Ten is a really good football conference, regardless of the narrative the ACC and SEC try to perpetuate. Ohio State has consistently been able to command games over conference opponents even when away from Ohio Stadium. The most recent example came last season when the Buckeyes went on the road to defeat No. 13 Michigan. In 2018, those road wins came over No. 9 Penn State and No. 18 Michigan State. In many ways, they’ve risen to the competition. In fact, the last time Ohio State fell to an unranked opponent (based on rankings at the time) was in 2011, when the Buckeyes lost to No. 15 Michigan 40-34 in Luke Fickell’s interim season as head coach.

The Happy Valley Horror

On that note, in terms of places that have scary memories, Beaver Stadium might take the cake. For example, there was that one time in 2016 when James Franklin and company eked out a 24-21 win on a white out night in Happy Valley. Boo.

On that evening, the Buckeyes leapt to a 21-7 lead by the start of the fourth quarter. And that’s when the wheels fell off. First, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley ran in for a two-yard touchdown. Then, kicker Tyler Davis connected on a 34-yard field goal with 9:33 remaining in the game. And then, as if we need a reminder, Grant Haley returned a blocked field goal 60 yards late in the fourth to seal a win for Penn State.

Night (Game) of the Living Dead

While FOX might tend to favor Big Noon Saturday as its premiere college football game of the week, there’s something undeniably special about playing under the lights on an October night, which makes the Buckeyes’ 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff on ABC that much more special.

Of course, as fans of one of the top teams in the nation, it’s easy to get spoiled when it comes to night games. For instance, the Buckeyes had three-straight night games in 2019 (Nebraska, Michigan State, Northwestern). Ohio State had three additional night games in the 2018 regular season, including its matchup against Penn State. With the exception of the aforementioned loss to Purdue in 2018, the Buckeyes won the remainder of these games.

In terms of the rest of the season, if Saturday’s matchup isn’t enough, the conference recently announced that Ohio State’s Nov. 7 matchup with Rutgers (1-0) will also be a night game.

The Ring - you know, the College Football Playoff one

Yes, in 2018, despite their loss to Purdue on the road, Ohio State still managed a win over Washington in the Rose Bowl. However, this season feels different in that everything is on the line week in and week out. With just eight regular season games (all in-conference) with a shot at the Big Ten title week nine, a single loss could mean losing all hope of a berth in the College Football Playoff and possibly a New Year’s Six bowl.

On that note, despite the stunning branding of college football’s postseason as “Bowl Season,” the college football world has already witnessed the cancellation of four bowls for the 2020 season (Bahamas Bowl, Hawaii Bowl, Redbox Bowl and Holiday Bowl). While there’s certainly validity to the argument of there being too many bowls, and while there will certainly be fewer bowl eligible teams this season because #COVID, it certainly sets off some alarm bells that some games are already being nixed.

This weekend’s game offers the best shot for Ohio State to make an impression for the CFP committee. While Penn State’s loss to Indiana last week certainly undermines the Nittany Lions’ status, Penn State still represents a formidable ranked opponent that the Buckeyes will have to overcome on the road. Coincidentally, Indiana and Michigan are the only two currently ranked opponents remaining after Penn State on the schedule.

Fearsome Fields for Haunted Heisman / Justin time for Halloween / Fields of Dreams (you know, because of the ghosts)

Okay, sorry for the stretch. But what’s not a stretch is quarterback Justin Fields’ contention for college football’s top honor. While the Heisman watch is certainly a little off-kilter this year, Fields made his way firmly into the discussion last week with his performance against the Huskers.

In last year’s matchup against Penn State, Fields went 16-of-22 passing for 188 yards and two touchdowns with no picks. While his total yardage was among the lowest he’s had all season, Fields’ ability to play super clean games (he had one pick all season in 2019) certainly played a factor in the Buckeyes’ 11-point win - its narrowest margin of victory all season.

One of the things we confirmed about Ohio State last week, as Fields entered his second season as the starting quarterback, is that Fields is really, really good. Fields connected on 20-of-21 passes (that’s better than 95%!) for 276 yards and two touchdowns and no picks against Nebraska. He added one more score on the ground. Now, he just has to repeat throughout the rest of Big Ten play for a shot at the trophy. Game on.

Nightmare Before Chris- Olave

Ohio State fans were stoked to see the duo of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson in 2020, a pair of relative veteran receivers leading a trio of four- and five-star true freshmen wide outs for the Buckeyes. The two receivers had standout games against Nebraska last week, each breaking 100 receiving yards on a combined 13 passes and taking the lion’s share of Fields’ 276 yards through the air. The nightmare part, however, came late in the game when Olave took a major hit to the head, ultimately getting sidelined for the remainder of the game.

Like it was for Fields, Penn State was not a highlight-reel game for Olave last season. The then-sophomore had two catches for 44 yards and a touchdown. Heading into this year’s game, Olave remains questionable for Saturday’s matchup. While Wilson is healthy and will be a solid target for Fields Saturday, and while the young stable of receivers is super deep, Olave’s veteran presence would certainly be missed. Obviously it is better to have a duo of outstanding receivers for Penn State to match up against than one.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Despite the big win over Nebraska, Ohio State wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders last week, with one of the few areas of deficiency being the Buckeyes’ running game. While the Buckeyes amassed a total of 215 yards on 48 carries for four touchdowns, Justin Fields was Ohio State’s leading rusher with 54 yards on the ground.

While we can’t expect to have a J.K. Dobbins in the backfield every year, the Buckeyes seem more than capable of regularly putting together a run-by-committee structure to give success in the ground game. This past Saturday, Oklahoma transfer running back Trey Sermon led that effort with 48 yards on 11 carries.

However, just behind Sermon was Master Teague III - the running back we’d been waiting for all summer. Teague’s 41 rushing yards on 12 carries weren’t jaw dropping by any means, but his two short touchdowns proved he’s a back Ohio State can rely on in the red zone.

Penn State is certainly known for its rush defense, though last season, the Buckeyes ran for 229 total yards and two touchdowns, both from Dobbins. The single data point from this year, however, was from Penn State vs. Indiana, when the Nittany Lions allowed just 41 yards on the ground. While Sermon and Teague didn’t exactly have breakout games against Nebraska, they’ll need stronger performances than what we saw to feed into the Buckeyes’ multi-dimensional offense.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

When it comes to owning the offensive backfield and snatching up quarterbacks, Ohio State has been second to none in recent years. Still, Ohio State’s defensive line took a hit in the offseason with defensive end Chase Young making his way to the NFL via the No. 2-overall pick of the 2020 draft. Young had a program-record 16.5 sacks last season, and filling his very large shoes was certainly a question this offseason.

But not for long. While a single dominant pass rusher has yet to emerge through a single game, the Buckeyes seemed to do just fine with a “pass rush by committee” option against Nebraska, with three different players earning a sack, including Zach Harrison, Haskell Garrett and Darrion Henry-Young. There’s also Jonathon Cooper, a fifth-year senior who is also looking to make an impact at the edge this season.

Franklin-stein

Head coach James Franklin is certainly looking for his team to rise from the grave after the Hoosier Horror Picture Show he and the Nittany Lions experienced last week. After entering the season with a top-10 ranking in the AP Poll. Franklin’s normally well-coached squad fell to an unranked team for the first time since 2018.

Regardless of recent history (like this past week), Franklin has been the head coach Penn State needed to revitalize the program following years of decline after the Jerry Sandusky child abuse revelations. Coming to State College in 2014, Franklin has amassed a 56-24 overall record with the Nittany Lions. In fact, Franklin is one of just three current head coaches in the Big Ten to win a conference title (Kirk Ferentz and Ryan Day are the other two), with Franklin’s title coming in 2016.

A Quiet Place

While normally filled with a raucous crowd - especially for the infamous white out games - Beaver Stadium will be eerily quiet come this Saturday. In line with social distancing guidelines, the normally 107,000-person stadium will be mostly empty. Often credited as one of the loudest stadiums in college football, Happy Valley’s capacity and noise represented a sizable portion of Penn State’s home field advantage. It happened to work out in Ohio State’s favor that the Buckeyes are able to play on the road in these unusual circumstances, when the home advantage for Penn State would seem to be somewhat diminished.

It’s worth noting that Penn State opened on the road, so this weekend will be the Nittany Lions’ first time playing in an empty Beaver Stadium as well. In terms of what it was like playing in an empty stadium, Justin Fields described playing in a quiet Horseshoe as “definitely weird.”

Sean of the Dead (ready for the Clifford-hanger?)

Like Ohio State, Penn State relied on its starting quarterback to anchor the rush attack in week one - even if that result was inadvertent. Also like Fields, junior Sean Clifford, a Cincinnati native, is entering his second season as a starter in State College. In the Nittany Lions’ opener, Clifford amassed 238 yards passing on 24-of-35 passing, connecting for three touchdowns and two interceptions. He added 119 yards and another touchdown on the ground.

In 2019, Clifford finished the season with 22 touchdowns and six picks while connecting on 59.5% of his passes. Against Ohio State, Clifford went 10-of-17 for 71 yards before exiting the game in the third quarter with a leg injury.

Clifford, who was voted a captain this season, will have an additional load to carry, literally, with James Franklin announcing this week that starting running back Noah Cain will be out for the remainder of the season with a leg injury.

Trick-or-Toney

Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney, also a captain in 2020 alongside Clifford, is certainly filling the void left by Micah Parsons on the Nittany Lions defense. Through one week, the edge rusher leads the Big Ten in sacks, having recorded two against Indiana last week. Last season, Toney was ninth on the team in total tackles, but second in sacks with 6.5 (behind Yetur Gross-Matos, now of the Carolina Panthers).

Despite being a fifth-year senior, Toney has yet to defeat Ohio State on the field (2016 was his redshirt season). In his most recent outing against the Buckeyes in 2019, Toney recorded four total tackles and no sacks.

A mysterious disappearance...

Justin Fields and Co. will need to be on the lookout for Penn State’s All-American linebacker Micah Parsons, the early favorite to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Ye---

Oh wait! They won’t. And no, the disappearance was not so mysterious. Parsons opted out of the 2020 season over the summer but, unlike Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis, decided against opting back in when the Big Ten announced the start of the fall season.

Regardless, Penn State fans can join Parsons and fellow former All-American linebacker LaVar Arrington on Facebook to watch the game. You know, if you’re still into virtual events after seven months.

Summary of all Fears

What could be better on a Halloween night than a thriller of two of the best teams in the Big Ten? Will it turn into an all-out slasher? Or will the victorious team hide its frightful weapons until the last moment?

Ohio State is favored by 12.5 against the Nittany Lions, which feels like balderdash if you’ve watched any of the games in recent memory - especially considering the venue is in State College. Then again, Penn State is missing its starting running back, its quarterback took a while to find his rhythm, oh, and Indiana managed to find and exploit a weakness in what was thought to be a top-10 team heading into the season. Plus, the normally deafening Beaver Stadium will be a lot easier to work an offense in for Justin Fields and company.

Given the skill at Ohio State’s disposal, the matchup would seem to favor the Buckeyes at most positions. Still, it’s hard to imagine Ohio State - Penn State to be anything less than a thriller - zombies, vampires and all.

LGHL Prediction: Ohio State 31, Penn State 21