Ohio State begins a pivotal and challenging stretch of football on Saturday night when they welcome Penn State to The Shoe. The 20th-ranked Nittany Lions were looking to get right after a close loss against Iowa nearly three weeks ago, and Illinois afforded them an opportunity to do so last weekend… <Morgan Freeman voice:> “The Nittany Lions did not, in fact, take advantage of that opportunity.”
The powers that be tried to give Penn State back-to-back bye weeks before their biggest game of the year, and instead, they squandered away their CFP chances by dropping a hilariously-awful thriller to Bret Bielema and the Fighting Illini.
If James Franklin is the coach that certain media members believe him to be, then Penn State will rebound. They will be looking for a major upset on Saturday, and a chance to salvage their season. That being said, the Nittany Lions also have a challenging schedule ahead of them, and if their confidence is shot, we could look back at the Illinois game as the beginning of the end for Franklin in Happy Valley. Getting dismantled by the Buckeyes would only make matters worse, so I think this game is a must-win game for both teams, but for entirely different reasons.
James Franklin has a talented football team, but they have been dealt a tough hand on the injury front. Quarterback Sean Clifford exited the Iowa contest early for Penn State, and it likely cost them the game. Backup QB Ta’Quan Robertson was unable to move the ball whatsoever, and the Hawkeyes came from behind to steal one. Defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher anchored their line and helped stuff the run, but he was lost for the season during that same Iowa game. Talk about a bad trip…
Fortunately (I think?), Clifford will be on the field for Saturday’s matchup with the Buckeyes. He returned against Illinois, but did not appear to be 100%. He was a non-factor on the ground, where he usually makes enough plays to be considered a viable threat. But Saturday will be 21 days out from when he initially suffered an upper body injury, so you have to think his health will improve over time.
Penn State needs Clifford out there; even if he is not going to be a threat on the ground, the Nittany Lions need somebody who is at least capable of getting the ball to their best player. If you’re reading this, you should know who I’m talking about. He’s sort of a big deal.
Occasionally I try to zig when everyone else zags — I might choose a tight end as the opposition’s Offensive Player to Watch, or an FCS-transfer linebacker on the other side of the ball. I’m not doing that this week. Jahan Dotson is hands-down the best, most entertaining, most capable, and most dangerous player on Penn State’s offense. He is “that guy” and this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.
Dotson is not the only receiving threat for PSU, but he is the most polished and explosive pass catcher they have. Parker Washington, Keandre Lambert-Smith, and Brenton Strange all need to be accounted for on Saturday, but the primary focus of OSU’s secondary and coaching staff will be the senior from Nazareth (he’s good, but I’m not talking about that Nazareth).
While Dotson might go his entire career without a 1,000-yard season, that is a reflection of quarterback play — not an indictment on his talent. If you need further evidence beyond the words in this column, just check out highlights from last year’s game between these two teams.
Dotson abused Shaun Wade in 2020’s version of this matchup, and that might be an understatement. Not only did he come up with eight catches for 144 yards (PSU totaled 325 yards for the game), it was the way he did it. On back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter, Dotson made two of the better catches you’re ever going to see on a football field. The first was a contested tip drill that he came down with on a crucial 3rd and 17.
On the very next play, Dotson went up one-handed on the sideline, and snagged the ball out of the air a la Odell Beckham Jr. (when he was good).
The second catch was a Catch of the Year candidate, and it cemented Dotson as a star in the making. His outstanding performance against the Buckeyes single-handedly — pun intended — kept the Nittany Lions in that game, although they ultimately fell 38-25.
Dotson finished the pandemic-shorted 2020 season with 52 catches, 884 yards, and eight touchdowns — in nine games. Given another 2 or 3 games, he surely would have crossed the 1,000 yard mark. He is halfway there in 2021 (494 yards through six games), but has once again been dealt an average-at-best quarterback.
This year was supposed to be his coming out party, but I don’t feel like the quarterbacks for PSU have been invited to said party. Dotson makes a ton of contested catches, and he is great with the ball in his hands. He makes his quarterbacks look better than they really are. If not for Dotson, this current Penn State passing attack would be well below-average.
In 2021, Dotson has been further needed in an attempt to make up for an equally poor running game. The Nittany Lions have been unable to mount any sort of consistent ground attack this season, which is something the program is typically known for. PSU produced Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders in recent years, but they have not been able to replicate anything close to that level of rushing success.
Journey Brown looked to be on his own path to stardom, but was forced into medical retirement. Noah Cain has been injured and underwhelming, putting even more pressure on Clifford, Dotson, and others.
The Nittany Lions will need some sort of balance to try and keep up with the Buckeyes, but they are rushing for only 119 yards per game, and doing so with a 3.5 yards per carry average. Some of their struggles can be attributed to offensive line play, but the team did return three starters from last year.
If Penn State can’t get anything going on the ground — and they have largely been unable to do so all season — then Dotson, Washington, and Lambert-Smith will need to make plays in the passing game. And they may not have time to work themselves open, given Ohio State’s newfound ability to rush the passer.
Dotson is not the biggest guy on the field at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, but he will make the biggest impact for the Nittany Lions come Saturday night. Even if he is blanketed by Denzel Burke or any other Buckeye defender, his mere presence is the best thing this PSU offense has going for it. Beyond his ability to produce highlights via contested catches, he also possesses great footwork and 4.3 speed. Dotson will test OSU’s secondary like it has not previously been tested in 2021.
Ohio State fans might willingly admit that Dotson belongs in conversation with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson for best WR in the Big Ten, but ESPN’s Mel Kiper would tell you that Dotson is actually better — at least as an NFL prospect. Earlier this month, Kiper had the Penn State WR ranked eighth on his 2022 big board. While I don’t agree, it goes to show the kind of talent that this guy has.
Dotson is arguably the most talented offensive player OSU will see this season. Fortunately, the Buckeyes have proven that they don’t need to stop him to win… but they should throw the kitchen sink at him in an effort to limit his big plays.