Upset-minded Penn State will certainly be bringing a few things to Columbus on Saturday night: a coach who does not know the difference between The Big House and The Shoe, a supremely talented wide receiver named Jahan Dotson, and one of the best defenses in the country. Poke holes in their schedule and argue about the statistics all you want, but the Nittany Lions have playmakers at every level, and they have held opponents to 14.7 points per game. This game presents a huge step up for C.J. Stroud and Co., who have eviscerated defenses for the last month.
STILL searching:— Brutus Buckeye (@Brutus_Buckeye) October 28, 2021
“the Big House - Columbus” pic.twitter.com/qzCeuFuSY3
Penn State currently ranks 6th in scoring defense, 26th in total defense, T-15th in passing defense, and 62nd in rushing defense. The ranking for rush defense is heavily influenced by their most recent game against Illinois, and not necessarily indicative of the Nittany Lions’ ability to stop the run. Prior to this past weekend’s upset, PSU ranked inside the top-25 in YPG given up on the ground. The Fighting Illini put up 357 yards rushing, which is about one-third of the total PSU has allowed on the season.
I’m not making excuses here. I think it’s impossible to defend giving up 357 yards rushing to a terrible Illinois team. However, for as poor as the rush defense appears on paper, and for as badly as Illinois thrashed them on the ground, the Nittany Lions are only giving up 3.58 yards per carry – which would put them somewhere in the neighborhood of top-30. Teams have to try and move the ball on them somehow, right?
With the exception of one game, Penn State has been pretty darn good on defense. I will acknowledge that the schedule has not been great, but Auburn and Iowa are plenty capable of moving the ball. The Nittany Lions limited the effectiveness of both teams. Unfortunately for them, they are about to run into a buzzsaw, more balanced and talented than Auburn or Iowa. Even worse, the Buckeyes do not have to rely on one facet of the game. Pick your poison: loading up the box against TreVeyon Henderson, or dropping eight in coverage to limit opportunities for Stroud and his receivers? Penn State will need big games from at least a few defensive players, of which they have some great ones.
I could have gone with half a dozen guys here, and felt confident in my choice for Defensive Player to Watch. P.J. Mustipher might have been PSU’s most important defensive player, as we saw what happened with him out of the lineup (Illinois game). The big DT was an important run stopper for them, but he was unfortunately lost for the season. Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith, and Jesse Luketa make up one of the best linebacker groups in the country.
And don’t get me started on the secondary. Brisker, Brown, Porter Jr., Castro-Fields — Penn State’s secondary is one of the most impressive units in the country, and I see a lot of similarities between them and recent Ohio State groups. However, because I don’t think OSU has been challenged on the front line, I went with a versatile pass rusher for the Nittany Lions. If they can get pressure against C.J. Stroud, it could be a game-changer.
Arnold Ebiketie is a pass-rushing TFL machine up front for Penn State. The Temple transfer was a proven commodity in the AAC, who has now upped his game in a superior conference. With Kayvon Thibodeaux having missed Oregon’s game against the Buckeyes, Ebiketie will be the best pass rusher Ohio State has faced all season. Beyond his ability to get to the quarterback, the PSU defensive end can also support in the running game, as evidenced by his average of six total tackles per game.
Ebiketie was a fringe three-star recruit out of high school, and at one time committed to Towson — not exactly a NCAA football powerhouse, that Towson. He then flipped to Temple and spent four seasons with the Owls, before transferring to Penn State. Ebiketie seemingly came out of nowhere during his redshirt junior season at Temple. In six games, he totaled 42 tackles, 8.5 TFL, four sacks, and three forced fumbles. He more than doubled all of his recorded stats from the previous two seasons combined. That 2020 season was enough to garner significant interest in the transfer portal, and he ended up making the short trip from Philadelphia to State College (PA).
This former Owl has hit the ground running for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions — more like he has quarterbacks running, am I right!? In his first Big Ten game against Wisconsin, Ebiketie had seven solo tackles, including two for loss and one sack. He has a TFL in all but one game this season, and a sack in five out of seven. This guy is not just running into piles and being credited with stops — he is playing at a very high level, week in and week out.
Ebiketie now comes to Columbus, looking to build off back-to-back stellar performances. The loss at Iowa may have been his best game of the season, as he was credited with nine tackles, 3.5 TFL, and a sack. Say what you will about Iowa’s vanilla offense, but they can block up front, and the Temple transfer put in work against their offensive line. He then followed it up with a 10 tackle, 2TFL, and 1.5 sack performance against Illinois. This comparison is not apples to apples, but Ebiketie has essentially produced in his last two games what Haskell Garrett and/or Zach Harrison have done all season.
If Ebiketie can create pressure and get to C.J. Stroud with any sort of regularity, it could go a long way towards limiting the Buckeye offense. If Stroud is rushed, or Ohio State has to rely on the ground game more than they have in recent weeks, it will put other defensive playmakers in a position to impact the game for Penn State. Linebackers can patrol the middle, and potentially stuff the run. Defensive backs may not have to cover Olave and Wilson as long, improving their chances of actually staying with the great duo.
This is all easier said than done. Ebiketie will be going up against an offensive line that has been dominant basically all year. His presence alone will not swing the game one way or another, but because Ebiketie is a multi-dimensional stud on the defensive live, I believe he can impact the game in more ways than some of his teammates on Saturday. It will be a collective effort, but hopefully there is no slowing down this OSU momentum. Go Bucks!