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Column: Five things to watch for in the Ohio State-Penn State game

From Chris Olave’s health to Sean Clifford’s running ability; from OSU’s run game to both defensive lines.

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Every game day of the 2020 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

After very different season openers, the presumed two best teams in the Big Ten, the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes and the No. 18 Penn State Nittany Lions, will square off tonight in a primetime matchup on ABC. The visiting Buckeyes will look to make it four in a row against the Nits, while PSU is hoping to bounce back in a big way from their 36-35 overtime defeat at the hands of the No. 17 Indiana Hoosiers.

Between injuries and correcting issues from last week (and seasons past), there are a lot of questions to be answered by both teams when they take to the field at 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC. So, I broke down the top five things that I will be specifically focusing on during tonight’s game.

1) Chris Olave

Nebraska v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

After Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave suffered a brutal looking hit at the hands of Nebraska safety Deontai Williams, many Buckeye fans feared for the worst as he left the field and looked very much like he might have suffered a concussion.

However, throughout the week, both head coach Ryan Day and fellow receiver Garrett Wilson told reporters that Olave had been practicing well, and Wilson went as far as to say that he expected him to play on Saturday.

Then when Friday’s availability report was released, Olave’s name was no where to be found, indicating that he had been cleared to return. Now, as we saw last week with Justin Hilliard, being cleared does not necessarily mean that someone will play. So, I will be watching Olave early and often to see if he does in fact make it onto the field, and then whether or not he appears to be 100% or not.

If he does, his presence on the outside should be a tremendous advantage for Justin Fields, not only as a deep threat, but also in taking the top off of the defense, opening inside routes for Wilson to take advantage of more favorable matchups coming out of the slot.

The Buckeyes can certainly win without Olave on the field, but it is far easier for them to do it with him in the lineup.

2) Stopping Sean Clifford on the ground

Running quarterbacks have been the kryptonite of many a good college football team for years, decades even, and Ohio State has been no exception. From All-American performers to unknown back-ups, all sorts of QBs have run roughshod over the Buckeyes throughout the years.

Despite this history, I don’t view Penn State’s current quarterback as nearly the running threat that his predecessor Trace McSorley was. Although Clifford ran for 119 yards against IU, that was at least in part because of losing running back Noah Cain — who was already replacing Journey Brown who is out with an undisclosed medical condition — early in the contest. Now that Devyn Ford has had a week to be worked into the game plan, I think that the PSU offensive coaches will rely on him a bit more than they did last week.

However, the threat of a running QB is always going to be something that keeps Buckeye fans (and coaches) up at night. So, I am going to be watching to see if the OSU defense plays a little bit more with Josh Proctor in the strong safety or even bullet position today. The idea would be that he could either walk up into, or start in, the box to add an extra defender around the line of scrimmage to account for Clifford if he takes off. I don’t think that Clifford’s running ability requires a spy to be specifically assigned to him, but having an extra body there to account for him when needed will be important.

It’s painfully obvious that middle linebacker Tuf Borland is not fast or athletic enough make a difference in this department unless Clifford runs literally right into his arms, so perhaps the Ohio State defensive staff will work Dallas Gant — who looked great in limited action against Nebraska — or even Teradja Mitchell into the middle as well.

3) Ohio State’s running game

After the opening weekend, one of the biggest concerns from Buckeye fans was in the lack of explosiveness from the running back position. Neither Trey Sermon, nor Master Teague made a tremendous impact, but I would attribute that just as much to play calling as anything that the backs did or did not do.

Throughout the game against Nebraska, it felt like Sermon was being asked to pound it inside, while Teague was given more opportunities go run outside. Part of this was due to the coaching staff rotating RBs by series, rather than situation.

So, I will be watching to see what adjustments are made in when and how the backs are used. I would hope that Teague is used more when power and short-yardage runs are required, and Sermon is primarily used on early downs to allow him to get into space.

I will also be interested in seeing if Steele Chambers and/or Miyan Williams get into the rotation at some point as well.

4) Negating Penn State’s pass rush

Last week, the Nits blitzed on 12 of Indiana’s 39 pass attempts (30.8%), and I wouldn’t be surprised if that percentage increases tonight. Defensive ends Shaka Toney, Jayson Oweh, and Adisa Isaac are likely the strongest position group for PSU, and they will have to have a big game to keep Justin Fields in check.

Last week, Ohio State’s offensive line struggled at times, especially internally. But, the tackles played well throughout — especially Nicholas Petit-Frere in his first game as the full-time starter. I also have to assume that what was supposed to be one of the best o-lines in college football will continue to gel as they get more time working together. So, I expect their play to improve tonight.

But, Ryan Day’s play calling will have to account for the pass rush more than it did against the Huskers. Given his Week 1 success, I would imagine that we will see a lot of quick hits to Garrett Wilson, and — heaven forbid — maybe even more than a couple targets for the tight ends as well.

And despite what many think the game plan is to protect the quarterback, I see Fields rushing the ball a bit more this week as well — at least on designed runs. I envision a number of QB draws in which Fields takes the snap, drops back a few steps, allowing the ends to crash in, only to take off up the middle.

That type of offensive wrinkle for Ohio State would certainly give Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry some pause when considering whether to bring the house or not.

5) Preventing Pat Freiermuth from taking over the game

Like running quarterbacks, talented, pass-catching tight ends have caused problems for the Buckeyes over the years. If OSU is going to neutralize Penn State’s All-Conference TE Pat Freiermuth, they are going to have to make some adjustments on defense.

One of the biggest moves on the Ohio State defense during fall camp was to take returning starting linebacker Pete Werner and move him from the strong-side (Sam) to the weak-side (Will). Last season, Werner played a mix of Sam and what we had been led to believe would be the separate bullet position.

In doing so, Werner was often placed in coverage matched up with tight ends, and did a relatively good job. Now that Baron Browning is in the Sam position, he could be asked to do something that he never has had to before. So, there are two options that I will be watching to see if OSU employs to defend the Nits’ talented tight end:

1) Let Werner move over to Sam in key situations.

2) Bring Josh Proctor up to cover Freirmuth in key situations.

Both players would provide size and experience when it comes to combatting PSU’s most potent offensive weapon, and are probably better than letting Browning or Borland cover him.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!