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Column: Does Ohio State have to be worried about Penn State’s off-the-field moves?

Happenings off the field may shift the balance toward the Nittany Lions. 

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons might be the best rookie in the league. He’s already getting compared to Lawrence Taylor and, according to Parsons himself in speaking to Sports Illustrated, he doesn’t, “really think the NFL is hard.”

Truth is, the former Penn State star is making it look pretty easy. Through 13 games, Parsons has had a dozen sacks and three forced fumbles. Jevon Kearse holds the rookie sack record at 14.5 — a mark Parsons looks poised not only to break, but to demolish. Most recently against the Washington Football Team, Parsons had two sacks, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble.

Micah Parsons opted out of the entire 2020 college football season due to COVID-19, but still managed to be a first-round draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, with the Cowboys taking him 12th overall. His time at Penn State had been plenty impressive, and it was clear the Nittany Lions missed him as James Franklin’s team dropped their first five games of the 2020 season without their best player on the field. Parsons was a consensus All-American in 2019, and brought home the Butkus-Fitzgerald award honoring the Big Ten’s best linebacker.

Like Chase Young, Nick Bosa and Joey Bosa have done for DE in both the college and NFL ranks, seeing Parsons have such monster success as a rookie is a boon for Penn State on the recruiting front. With the Early Signing Period today, that influence will surely help as the Nittany Lions lock in a star-studded class.

That recruiting benefit will no doubt be aided by Manny Diaz getting brought in as defensive coordinator, as well as James Franklin’s massive contract extension this season, which locks him in with the Nittany Lions for the next decade. Led by Diaz, the Hurricanes ranked 11th in the recruiting for the class for 2021 and 17th in 2020.

Now, Penn State has signed one of the nation’s top classes, sitting at fifth nationally for the class of 2022 (including one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Drew Allar). Last year, the Nittany Lions were 21st for the class of 2021, with no five-star recruits.

Franklin, the offensive-minded coach who cut his teeth coaching receivers, has effectively transformed Penn State’s offense from something that looks like what we think of when we think Iowa football to one that has a propensity to put up points — this season’s performance against Illinois notwithstanding. However, that offensive bend sways somewhat from the tradition of Penn State which, like Iowa, is known for stout defense and not much else.

Diaz is a big name to replace Brent Pry, who left the Nittany Lions to fill the head coaching vacancy at Virginia Tech. Diaz is an incredible addition for many tangible reasons, like recruiting the fertile South Florida region, but also for intangible ones, such as the panache he brings to a program that may have been perceived as shifting its philosophy to scoring points rather than stopping them.

But, the thing is, Penn State’s defense has not actually been bad (in fact, it’s been really good), and the addition of Diaz, combined with the success of Parsons, means that Penn State presents a balanced team that has a reputation for being elite on both sides of the ball.

What do these changes in Happy Valley mean for Ohio State? Unfortunately, it means the Buckeyes are no longer the talk of the town in every football-related category. Sure, they’ve got offense on lockdown (another shoutout to another Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback), but the trends on defense have been troubling.

Until facing Alabama last season in the College Football Playoff finals, the Buckeyes, like Penn State, boasted an elite defense. This season, that defense was regularly exploited. The passing defense finished 12th in the Big Ten, giving up 247 yards per game through the air. There were also those games against Minnesota, Oregon and Michigan where the Buckeyes allowed 200+ yards on the ground in each matchup.

These shifts felt like they’ve been in the works for some time, though. In the 2021 NFL Draft, for the first time since 2015, the Buckeyes did not have a defensive player taken in the first round of the draft. It was a far cry from just a few years before when, for instance, Ohio State had three defensive backs taken in the first round alone, or three seasons where defensive ends were taken within the top-three picks.

However, is one very poor season of performances on defense enough to press the panic button? The Buckeyes have made their own moves at defensive coordinator, bringing on Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles. While not a name like Diaz (because he’s never been a head coach at a Power Five program), his Cowboys gave up under 17 points per game this season. In theory, that shift should solve many of the on-field challenges we’ve seen from the defense in the last year.

When it comes to pro-level talent, there’s also a degree of the NFL being something of a numbers game which, unfortunately, is not as skewed in favor of the Buckeyes as one might think: Ohio State has 44 players on NFL rosters currently to Penn State’s 33. Further, there are many notable Nittany Lions at many positions: Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin at wide receiver, Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders at running back, heck, even Robbie Gould at kicker. And of course, Micah Parsons.

Ohio State finished this season ranked 50th in scoring defense nationally and seventh in the Big Ten. For a brand that’s prided itself for years on developing NFL-caliber talent, that’s bad, especially when one of the teams well ahead — Penn State, which was seventh nationally and third in the conference — has had such vivid performances from former players and made such high-profile offseason moves.

For several seasons in recent memory, Penn State rose to become the most threatening team on Ohio State’s schedule, but the Nittany Lions have fallen off somewhat in the last three seasons. Now, however, Penn State’s success in the NFL, elite recruiting and premier coaching staff have created a competing brand in the Big Ten East — and one the Buckeyes will have to watch out for on the recruiting trail and the football field alike.