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Column: Looking back at five key factors in Ohio State’s win over Penn State

I told you the five things that I was going to watch, and here’s what I saw.

Ohio State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/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.

On Saturday, the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes passed their first (and only?) test of the Big Ten season when they dispatched the Penn State Nittany Lions by a score of 38-25. It wasn’t a perfect performance in primetime over the weekend, but it was pretty darn good, and helped us feel a bit better about some of the areas of concern that we had following the Nebraska season opener. So, I am looking back at the five things that I wanted to focus on heading into the Penn State game, and, friends, they were nearly all good for the Buckeyes.

1) Chris Olave

After the OSU veteran receiver was knocked out of the season opener against Nebraska, there was a lot of concern over whether or not he would be able to play against the Nits. However, throughout the week, OSU players and coaches indicated that he had returned to practice and looked good.

But, looking good at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center against teammates is much different than looking good in Beaver Stadium against an opposing defensive who would like nothing more than to break you in half; Olave not only looked good under the lights, he looked great. With seven catches on eight targets, the junior wracked up 120 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Pairing him with sophomore slot receiver Garrett Wilson, the duo became the first in the illustrious history of the Ohio State football program to each account for 100 yards in consecutive games. Needless to say, the combination of quarterback Justin Fields and Olave, Wilson, and (to a lesser degree) the rest of the WRs and tight ends is very much the strength of this year’s OSU offense, and it’s great that everyone is healthy following the first major hurdle.

2) Stopping Sean Clifford on the ground

Stopping running quarterbacks is one of the most difficult things to do in college football. That is the reason that we have seen an explosion of offensives incorporating RPO principles into their game plans in recent years.

In Week 1, the Buckeyes gave up 87 non-sack adjusted rushing yards to Huskers quarterback Adrian Martinez. In the same week, PSU’s Sean Clifford went for 119 against Indiana. However, on Saturday, Ohio State held Clifford to just five total rushing yards (thanks in part to five sacks).

As I expected, part of this was because the OSU defensive coordinators brought in extra safety Josh Proctor to play closer to the line and not exactly spy on, but at least to account for Clifford in the run game. But, the other part of the Buckeye scheme that helped keep the PSU QB in check was the play of Ohio State’s universally-beloved, run-stuffing, 18-time captain, middle linebacker Tuf Borland.

While I have questioned his athleticism when it comes to playing Mike linebacker, the area in which Borland exceeds is in running downhill and stuffing the run, and on Saturday, he did that pretty darn well, helping to keep the Nits’ QB in check.

3) Ohio State’s running game

This is the one area that I focused on that I don’t think that Ohio State excelled in. But, the thing is, I’ve never really expected the OSU running game to be exceptional. Instead, on Saturday they more or less met my expectations: the running game was fine.

While Master Teague ended up getting the bulk of the carries — 23 to Trey Sermon’s 13 — both backs averaged roughly around 4.5 yards per carry (Teague- 4.8, Sermon- 4.3). So, while neither RB looked especially dynamic, the one area that did improve was how the two backs were actually used.

Rather than alternating possessions, it seemed like the RBs were deployed more situationally than they had been in the opener; Teague was used more in the between-the-tackles, short-yardage game, while Sermon was used more outside.

Also, as the game progressed, Teague ended up being the primary ball-carrier down the stretch, which I think could continue to be the case moving forward.

While Sermon and Teague combined for 166 yards (Teague- 110, Sermon- 56), Justin Fields only ran the ball four times — two designed, two scrambles — and was sacked twice (which is still stupidly counted as a rush in college football stats).

I had expected Fields to run more often this season than he did last year, but we haven’t seen that much as yet. However, if the running backs are unable to provide substantive, game-changing contributions, when the Buckeyes get into the postseason, I would imagine that Ryan Day will let his quarterback run as much as is needed.

Not only will that be good for Fields’ individual rushing total, but giving opposing defenses something to think about will also help the backs’ success as well.

4) Negating Penn State’s pass rush

Penn State has a pair of future first-round draft picks at defensive end with Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh. And yet, the Ohio State offensive line allowed only two sacks, the first was an uncharacteristic miss by Wyatt Davis straight up the middle, and the second was a missed pre-snap read by Justin Fields.

Other than those two hiccups, Fields was almost never hurried, and the offensive line was practically a brick wall that the Nits’ rushers couldn’t scale or break through. In fact, in the first two games of the season, neither of OSU’s starting offensive tackles — Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere — have allowed a single hurry. Not one. That’s extraordinary.

We had high expectations for Ohio State’s offensive line coming into the season, and while they are still a work-in-progress, it is looking like they very well could live up to them by the time all is said and done.

5) Preventing Pat Freiermuth from taking over the game

Like stopping Sean Clifford on the ground, I don’t know that the Buckeyes could have done better when it came to stymying the Nits’ No. 1 weapon, tight end Pat Freiermuth. For years, TEs have tilted games against the Buckeyes, but on Saturday night, Freiermuth was limited to just three catches on five targets for 46 yards.

On Saturday, I wrote that OSU should move Pete Werner back from the Will to the Sam linebacker position in passing downs to account for Freiermuth, and that they should play more nickel and have Josh Proctor also in the box to cover the TE, and that is mostly what happened.

Starting Sam linebacker Baron Browning was in coverage more than I expected him to be on Saturday night, but whomever was shadowing Freiermuth did an even better job than I expected them to.

While I don’t think that Saturday’s performances against Clifford on the ground and Freiermuth through the air means that the Buckeyes have completely figured out these particular bugaboos, but this was not only important on Saturday, but they could also be important indicators for when/if OSU makes it to the College Football Playoffs.

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!