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Ohio State vs. Penn State: 2021 game preview and prediction

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The Buckeyes will be looking for their fifth-straight win against Penn State when they host the Nittany Lions in front of a scarlet-clad crowd at Ohio Stadium on Saturday night.

Indiana v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Ohio State will be looking to avoid any scares when they host Penn State under the lights on Saturday at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes have been outstanding since their loss to Oregon, bringing a five-game winning streak into this week’s game against the Nittany Lions.

The Buckeyes had little trouble last week against Indiana, easily dispatching the Hoosiers 54-7 in Bloomington. Ohio State used a second quarter that saw them score 30 points to take a 44-7 lead into the halftime break. The defense of the Buckeyes was constantly in the Indiana backfield, recording 14 tackles for loss.


A couple big streaks

Ohio State has now scored at least 50 points in four-straight games. Twice before the Buckeyes have accomplished that feat, and both times Penn State was the team to snap Ohio State’s scoring barrage. The Nittany Lions kept the Buckeyes from scoring at least 50 points in five-straight games in 2014 and 2017.

Another streak Ohio State currently has going is they have rolled up at least 500 yards in six-straight games. Had Ohio State been able to record five more yards against Minnesota in the season opener, that streak would currently be sitting at seven games. If the Buckeyes are able to put up at least 500 yards on Saturday night, it would mark the first time in school history that Ohio State has reached that mark in seven consecutive games.


Always a tough foe

After playing some of the teams near the bottom of the Big Ten standings recently, Ohio State will face a tougher task on Saturday night when they take on Penn State. The Buckeyes have won four-straight games against the Nittany Lions, and are 21-14 all-time against Penn State. Lately, the final scores between the two schools have been razor-thin, with the last five contests being decided by an average of six points. Last year, the Buckeyes defeated Penn State 38-25 in State College, as Chris Olave and Jeremy Ruckert each caught two touchdown passes from Justin Fields.


Heisman hopeful

Ohio State won’t have Justin Fields this year, but C.J. Stroud is doing a great job at filling Fields’ shoes as starting quarterback. With a four touchdown performance against Indiana, Stroud was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the fifth time this season. Over his last three games, Stroud has thrown for 1,002 yards, 14 touchdowns, and no interceptions.

Stroud is leading an Ohio State offense that leads the country with 49.3 points and 559.3 yards per game. The Buckeyes are averaging 8.44 yards per play, which is first among Power 5 teams, and second overall in the country. While Stroud is piling up some incredible stats, the most impressive one might be that he led 19 consecutive drives that ended with a touchdown before the Buckeyes were forced to punt in the second half against Indiana.


Tre Day

Another fantastic freshman for the Buckeyes this year has been running back TreVeyon Henderson, who is just four touchdowns away from tying Maurice Clarett’s school record of 18 touchdowns by a freshman running back or wide receiver. Henderson is averaging 8.8 yards per carry, which is third-most in the nation.

What makes Henderson so dangerous is he can bust a big play anytime he touches the football. So far this year, Henderson has four runs of at least 40 yards, which is tied for second-most in the country. Henderson is undoubtedly the best freshman running back in the country, and there’s an argument to be made that he is the best overall back in the nation.


Weapons for days

C.J. Stroud has been great over these last three games, but he wouldn’t have been able to put up such gaudy numbers without the great group of receivers he has to work with. Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jaxson Smith-Njigba all have at least 29 catches and 518 yards this season. Wilson leads the Buckeyes with 36 receptions and 605 yards receiving, while Olave has a team-high eight touchdown catches.

One weapon of Stroud’s who has emerged recently is tight end Jeremy Ruckert. Last week against Indiana, Ruckert hauled in a career-high five passes. With his two touchdown catches against the Hoosiers, Ruckert is now one away from equaling Jake Stoneburner’s 13 touchdowns for most in school history by a tight end. Ruckert has already set a career-high with 16 receptions this season.


Getting stingy

After a rocky start to the season, the Ohio State defense has been playing really well over the last five games. The Buckeyes gave up 66 points to Minnesota and Oregon, but in the five games since they have only surrendered 64 points. The 18.6 points per game that Ohio State is giving up to opponents ranks 18th in the country, which is something that seemed unfeasible after how they looked to start the season against the Golden Gophers and Ducks.


Thou shalt not cross

The most impressive stat for the Ohio State is they haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown since the Oregon game. In the first two games of the season, Ohio State gave up six rushing touchdowns. Over the last five games, the Buckeye defense has only given up seven total touchdowns.


Turning up the heat

Last week it felt like the Buckeyes were in the backfield on every snap, racking up 14 tackles for loss against the Hoosiers. Ohio State now has 49 tackles for loss, which ranks first in the Big Ten. Of those 14 tackles for loss, five were sacks of Indiana quarterbacks. The Buckeyes have really turned up the heat on opposing quarterbacks lately, registering 21 of their 25 sacks on the season over their last four games.

Leading the way for the Ohio State defensive line is Haskell Garrett, with the senior notching a team-high 4.5 sacks so far this season. Sitting just behind Garrett is freshman Tyliek Williams, who is just half a sack off of Garrett’s mark. This season, 12 Buckeyes have recorded at least half a sack, so there have been plenty of defenders that have been involved in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.


Linebuckers

One area of the defense that has improved throughout the year is at linebacker. While Ronnie Hickman leads the team with 52 tackles, he has played a hybrid linebacker/defensive back position. Teradja Mitchell is the leader among the pure linebackers with 37 tackles. Cody Simon and Tommy Eichenberg have also made strides during the season, growing into their roles on the defense.

A big reason for the improvement of the linebackers has been the addition of Steele Chambers, who has transitioned over to linebacker from running back. After playing linebacker in high school, Chambers has been able to adjust quickly to what the Ohio State coaches want him to do on the field. Just a couple weeks ago against Maryland, Chambers recorded a career-high with seven tackles to go along with his first career sack.


Breaking up Buckeyes

Even though Ohio State wasn’t able to extend their streak to five games with an interception return for a touchdown last week, the secondary is still playing at a high level. Denzel Burke has a team-high six pass breakups this season, while Cam Brown has added five, and Cam Martinez has broken up four passes. The Buckeye defense as a whole has 35 pass breakups this season.


Penn State’s season at a glance

After such a hot start to the season, Penn State has really cooled off over the last two games. The Nittany Lions were cruising against Iowa before Sean Clifford was injured, which allowed the Hawkeyes to come back and hand Penn State their first blemish of the season.

Then last week with Clifford back under center, the Nittany Lions inexplicably struggled against Illinois, falling to the Fighting Illini 20-18 in nine overtimes as 24-point favorites. Illinois came into the game with a 2-5 record, yet Penn State was only able to gain 227 yards against Bret Bielema’s team. The Nittany Lions weren’t even able to use Illinois’ three turnovers to help propel them to victory.


On the way out?

Adding to Penn State’s woes is speculation that James Franklin could be leaving for the vacant USC head coaching job after the season. Franklin is in his eighth season in State College, amassing a 65-30 record with the Nittany Lions, and 89-45 in his 11 seasons as a head coach. Franklin is 1-6 in his head coaching career against Ohio State.


Taking the snaps

Even though there were questions about Sean Clifford’s health heading into the Illinois game, Franklin expects his starting quarterback to be at 100% for Saturday night’s game against the Buckeyes. Clifford is in his third season as Penn State’s starting quarterback, tossing 53 touchdowns and 21 interceptions during his time with the Nittany Lions. This season Clifford has 12 touchdown passes, but just one over the last two games.


Looking for more

The key for Penn State is going to be establishing their running game. When the Nittany Lions are able to rush for over 200 yards under Franklin they are 28-5. Unlike past years where they had star running backs like Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, Penn State has had trouble running the football this year.

The Nittany Lions have rushed for just 832 yards this season, with Noah Cain leading the team with 245 yards rushing this year. Keyvone Lee sits just behind Cain with 228 yards rushing, and Lee’s 5.1 yards per carry is two yards per carry more than Cain is averaging. Ohio State might be able to extend their streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown to six games, since the Nittany Lions have only scored eight rushing touchdowns this year.


Dotson the i

Then again it’s hard to want to run the football when you have a star wide receiver like Jahan Dotson, who has 49 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns this year. Dotson and Clifford have connected for 18 touchdowns during their careers, which is tied with Iowa State’s Brock Purdy and Charlie Kolar for most among active FBS duos.

Dotson’s breakout game came last year when he caught eight passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes. The 100-yard performance was the second of his career, and since then he has reached triple digits in six more games. Prior to failing to reach the end zone in the last two games, Dotson had scored at least one touchdown in six-straight games.


Joining Jahan

Ohio State can’t focus all their attention on Dotson though, as Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith have put up some solid numbers this year. Washington has 32 catches for 374 yards and two touchdowns, while Lambert-Smith has hauled in 21 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns. Lambert-Smith can stretch the field, as he is averaging 15.9 yards per catch this year, and his 83-yard touchdown against Villanova is the longest by a Penn State receiver this season.


Roaring Lions

While the Penn State offense has been inconsistent at times this year, the same can’t be said about the Penn State defense. The Nittany Lions are allowing just 14.7 points per game this year, which is third in the Big Ten and sixth in the country. Dating back to last season, Penn State has held their opponents to 24 points or less in 11-straight games.

The Nittany Lions have an even longer streak going, as they have forced a turnover in 13-straight games. During that span, Penn State has forced 20 overall turnovers. This year has already seen the Nittany Lions snatch nine interceptions and recover four fumbles. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown has been the most opportunistic Penn State defender, grabbing three interceptions this year.


Down but not out

The defensive line of the Nittany Lions took a hit a few weeks ago when they lost PJ Mustipher for the rest of the season due to injury. The Ohio State offensive line will have their hands full with defensive end Amold Ebiketie, who has 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks so far this season. Jesse Luketa has split time between linebacker and defensive end this year, but with the loss of Mustipher it’s likely to see him more on the defensive line on Saturday night. Luketa has five quarterback hurries, which is the most among Penn State defenders.


Nittany Linebackers

What really steadies the Penn State defense is their linebackers. Redshirt senior Ellis Brooks leads the Nittany Lions with 55 tackles, while junior Brandon Smith has added 44 stops and five tackles for loss. Rounding out the starting linebackers is Curtis Jacobs. The sophomore has had made a few key plays this year, registering two sacks and intercepting a pass.


Built to battle the Bucks

There really isn’t any team in the country that’s going to have an easy time trying to slow down the Ohio State passing attack. Penn State might be one of the few teams with a secondary that can actually challenge Ohio State’s talented group of wide receivers. As mentioned earlier, Ji’Ayir Brown leads the secondary with three interceptions so far this season.

Joining the senior safety is Jaquan Brisker, who is also a senior. Brisker has made 33 stops on the year, intercepted a pass, broken up four other passes, and recovered a fumble. Brisker has been so impressive so far this season that he was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.

A name that will be familiar to anyone watching college football is Joey Porter Jr., because his father played in the NFL. The younger Porter is already making a name for himself as a sophomore, and just recorded a career-high nine tackles against Illinois. At the other cornerback position is Tariq Castro-Fields, who has plenty of experience. Saturday’s game will be Castro-Fields’ 25th career start.


Summary

Even though this game might has lost some of its shine because of Penn State’s recent losses, there is no doubt this will be a physical game. The Nittany Lions seem to be the one team that always finds a way to take Ohio State down to the wire. There have been a number of games where the Buckeyes have come into the Penn State game on a roll, yet the Nittany Lions find a way to slow things down and make Ohio State play their game.

Luckily this game is being played in Columbus this year, since had it been in State College, it would be the first truly raucous road game that C.J. Stroud would have had to deal with as Ohio State’s starting quarterback. Not that Stroud wouldn’t have been able to handle the noise that the Penn State faithful would have created, the game in Columbus just makes things a little easier, especially with the Buckeyes having no margin for error after losing to Oregon earlier in the season.

Right now these two teams seem to be headed in opposite directions. Penn State is reeling after blowing a lead at Iowa, and following it up with a dud at home against Illinois. Ohio State has gotten better each week out after the loss to Oregon. The Buckeye defense has responded with Matt Barnes taking over the play-calling responsibilities, while Stroud has been incredible after sitting out against Akron to give his shoulder some time to heal.

Even though Penn State does have some pieces on defense that will challenge the Buckeyes more than any other defense has this year, the biggest concern for the Nittany Lions is how they are going to keep pace with Ohio State. Jahan Dotson is a big threat for the Buckeyes, but if Ohio State’s defense is able to limit the damage that Dotson does, there isn’t much else that really strikes fear on the offensive side of the football for the Nittany Lions.

Let’s not forget, Penn State hasn’t faced an offense that is anywhere close to as dynamic as what they’ll see from Ohio State. Wisconsin and Iowa were both big running teams, and while Auburn has a solid quarterback in Bo Nix, they just don’t have the quality at the skill positions that Ohio State does. There hasn’t been a ton of time where the Nittany Lions have had to play from behind this year, so if Ohio State jumps out early, it could be a long night for James Franklin and company.

The 18.5-point spread might be just a tad high for Ohio State to cover, since Penn State does get up for games against Ohio State. It’s hard to see this game being in doubt late, though. The Buckeyes get their best win of the season as they close out an outstanding October, and look towards a November that will see a number of tough tests on the horizon.

LGHL Prediction: Ohio State 41, Penn State 24