The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes will be looking to avoid tricks as they hope for the treat of a road win this Saturday against No. 13 Penn State in a noon matchup just before Halloween. What looked like a scary prospect just a few weeks ago looks more like a parody in the light of day as the Nittany Lions have struggled in recent weeks.
But Penn State has at times been a bogeyman for Ohio State. While the Buckeyes have been a nightmare scenario for opponents this season, they’ll look to avoid a shop of horrors on the road against a talented Penn State squad.
A Series of Fortunate Events
Ohio State owns the series against Penn State, 22-14. The Buckeyes are winners of the last five and nine of the last 10, with the Nittany Lions’ last win coming in 2016. However, the Buckeyes are a much-closer-to-.500 8-6 in Happy Valley, always the intimidating environment.
Last season, Ohio State emerged with a 33-24 win in Columbus, but things felt tense for a minute as the Buckeyes were down 7-3 at the end of the first quarter and tied in the third. It was a rare off game for C.J. Stroud, who had just one passing touchdown on the day (tied for his lowest total of the season). The offense went just 5-of-14 on third down and struggled to convert red zone possessions into touchdowns. Defense and special teams led the way for the Buckeyes. Four Noah Ruggles field goals and a defensive scoop-and-score proved the difference in the game for Ohio State.
While 90% of horror movies happen in the home (yes, that is a made-up statistic), Ohio State’s experience in the Horseshoe this season has been nothing short of sunny. But at some point, the Buckeyes had to Get Out and see the world.
With a five-game homestand under their belts, the Buckeyes have played just one game outside of Columbus this season (a Saw-style methodical dismantling of Michigan State). This Nittany Lion monster, however, seems like a more adept one than the Spartans.
Penn State is 4-0 at home this season, with their most impressive win coming last week against Minnesota. In that matchup, James Franklin’s team bounced back from its loss to Michigan and an anemic win over Northwestern the preceding two weeks. The 45-17 victory was the Nittany Lions’ most impressive win since dismembering Auburn on the road early in the season.
The Upside Down
Somehow, the noon game is the primetime matchup on FOX, because this is the college football world we live in.
The site will be less eerie than the last time Ohio State traveled to Penn State on Halloween night in 2020 and played in front of an empty stadium. Hopefully the Penn State faithful got their white-out energy out of their system last week against Minnesota.
We’re definitely used to Ohio State and Penn State being a night game, as it’s been for the past two seasons. However, given the Buckeyes have already played three night games this season, some of our younger fans (and probably older ones, too) might appreciate being able to go to bed early for a change.
Despite Penn State’s recent struggles (and apparent tunnel drama with Michigan), head coach James Franklin has brought remarkable consistency to the Nittany Lions on his way to 73-35 overall and 45-29 in-conference records. He’s also been one of few coaches to have had Ohio State’s number, though not so much lately.
Importantly, for a program like Ohio State that’s been able to regularly blow out opponents, Penn State under Franklin has kept things close. In Franklin’s seven losses to Ohio State, the Buckeyes’ average margin of victory was just 10 points — far less than for any other Big Ten East opponent.
Franklin is also one of just four current Big Ten coaches to win a conference title (2016).
Sean of the Dead: Part VI
Horror movie franchises have a propensity for too many sequels. Penn State football is no different. Penn State’s super senior quarterback is in his sixth season with the program, but he’s never beaten his home state Buckeyes (Clifford hails from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati). But don’t let his undead state fool you: Clifford’s got some moves up his sleeve.
Last week, Clifford earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Minnesota, which included 295 passing yards, four touchdowns and one pick, which essentially matched his week one performance against Purdue.
Like Stroud, Clifford’s 2021 performance against Ohio State was pretty unremarkable. Despite throwing for 361 yards and a touchdown, he also threw a pick late in the third quarter deep in his own territory which gave the Buckeyes the edge in what was at the time a close game.
Clifford’s best performance against the Buckeyes came in 2020, when he had 281 yards, three touchdowns and another pick in the Nittany Lions’ loss. Probably didn’t help that he was sacked five times.
Double double, toil and trouble
Last year, the Nittany Lions had just 33 yards rushing. The unit will be looking for retribution this season, and they have the tools to do it.
Penn State has a two-headed monster at running back between freshmen Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. The pair are making up for a shotty rushing attack in 2021 with a collective 857 yards and 11 touchdowns. Neither player has crossed the century mark in the last three games, but they’re playing a true running back-by-committee approach which naturally limits individual yards. In fact, Singleton has 82 carries on the season to Allen’s 78.
It doesn’t hurt that Penn State has a more-mobile-than-Stroud quarterback (though that doesn’t take much). Clifford has added four scores on the ground this season.
Dawn of the Diaz
One of the highly touted coordinator moves this past offseason was Manny Diaz’s transition to defensive coordinator in State College following his ill-fated tenure in Miami. No surprise, Penn State has emerged with an effective defense, albeit not a flashy one. The Nittany Lions are allowing a respectable 19 points per game and, despite significant losses on the defensive side of things, bring a tough secondary that could match Ohio State’s deep receiver depth.
Highlighting Diaz’s defense, as Josh Dooley covered Wednesday, Penn State brings two of the top defensive backs in the country in its secondary. Two of the reasons Stroud struggled against the Nittany Lions last season are senior safety Ji’Ayir Brown and junior cornerback Joey Porter Jr. Brown leads the team in tackles with 41 on the season and picks with three. Porter, meanwhile, has broken up 11 passes so far this season, which is good for second in the conference.
Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, their defensive prowess has not translated to the run game. In particular, Penn State failed to stop the run against Michigan, giving up 418 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Even a dinged-up Ohio State running back room should be able to move the ball effectively against this defense.
Rocky Horror Kicking Show
Things have not been going smoothly from a place kicking perspective for the Nittany Lions in 2022. Penn State has missed two extra points and three field goals so far this season on the leg of senior kicker Jake Pinegar. Pinegar, along with the freshmen kickers assisting with kickoff duties, has also struggled to kick the ball out of the endzone, which isn’t great for assuring favorable field position for Penn State’s defense.
Thus far, those misses haven’t had any far-reaching implications (Penn State’s loss to Michigan had a lot of other issues beyond kicking), but they’ll certainly be a factor in closer games moving forward—kind of like the ones Ohio State and Penn State have been used to playing in recent seasons.
So this is a fun story. Penn State senior punter Barney Amor might not hail from Australia like many other punters in the Big Ten, but he does come from the Netherlands and his parents live in Switzerland. He walked on to Penn State this fall after spending a season punting for Colgate. Oh and, like his quarterback, Amor is a sixth-year super senior. He’s also working on his third degree.
On the field, 15 of Amor’s 30 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. Even more impressive, 12 of those dropped inside the 10. Somehow, even with that narrow window, he’s had just one touchback.
A punter with that sort of accuracy is definitely an asset for the Nittany Lions, but the Ohio State offense hasn’t shied away from a long field so far this season.
Another slasher movie
For some, spending three hours watching a monster slaughter everyone who gets in their path is entertainment reserved for Halloween. For Ohio State fans, it’s what we’ve seen every Saturday this season.
Ohio State is winning its game by an average of 35 points. Yes, that is best in the Big Ten and FBS. That margin, of course, is rooted in an outstanding offense that is in the top five of most major offensive statistical categories nationally, but it’s also a credit to a defense that has also managed to leap into national recognition by holding even offensively competent opponents in check.
The Buckeyes certainly didn’t hold back on Iowa last week, which leads us to…
Children of the Corn
America needs farmers, so maybe Ohio State shouldn’t have dismantled Iowa so thoroughly last week. And no, this was not one of the aforementioned competent offenses.
But alas, while we might not have learned much about the Buckeyes’ defense against the worst offense it has faced all season, we saw the offense demonstrate some resiliency in the face of a talented Hawkeye defense, as well as some areas Ohio State can improve upon before its next big test which just so happens to be this weekend.
In Ohio State’s 54-10 win over the Hawkeyes, the outstanding Iowa defense kept the offense largely in check in the first half, most notably holding the touchdown-oriented Buckeyes to field goals in possessions started in Iowa territory. One of the other surprises was Iowa keeping Ohio State to 3-of-13 on third-down conversion attempts. Heading into last week, the offense was converting 58% of its third-down attempts.
C.J. the Sequel
While it’s hard to say with a straight face that 47 offensive points is struggling, Ohio State’s Heisman-candidate quarterback will be looking for redemption Saturday from a stifling performance against Iowa’s top-rated defense (which actually looked statistically very similar to Clifford’s POY performance against Minnesota — four touchdowns, one pick, 286 yards).
He’ll also want a comeback from last year’s performance against Penn State which left something to be desired. Stroud threw for 305 yards but just a single touchdown. It’ll be a tall order since, as mentioned, he’ll be going against a pair of the top defensive backs in the nation.
At this point, we also must take a moment to credit the offensive line. Stroud has benefited from phenomenal protection and has been sacked a mere five times this season. That mark is good for fifth in the FBS.
Sorry, one more Frankenstein reference. That’s because if Frankenstein’s monster were found on Ohio State’s roster, it would be receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. First of all, he’s enormous, standing at 6-foot-4, 205-pounds. And yet, he has the grace of a ballerina, able to tip-toe the sidelines and make mind-bending adjustments as he separates from defenders to make catches. Oh, and he’s fast.
The total package receiver leads the team in receiving touchdowns (10) and is second in receiving yards (598) behind Emeka Egbuka. He’s second in the FBS in receiving touchdowns behind Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt.
Harrison had seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown against Iowa. He’ll have a chance to go toe-to-toe with another competent defensive secondary Saturday.
Meanwhile, Jaxon Smith-Njigba made it back for a hot second against Iowa before being sidelined once again after head coach Ryan Day said he reached his snap limit. It looks like he’ll once again be counting plays this week versus Penn State as he makes his way back from a hamstring injury suffered in the first half of the Buckeyes’ season opener against Notre Dame.
Angry Red (Zone) Planet
And then there was one. Ohio State remains the only FBS team perfect in the red zone. Of 36 red zone possessions, the Buckeyes have scored 17 passing touchdowns, 14 rushing touchdowns and made five field goals.
As previously mentioned, the offense faced a stingy defense last week against Iowa. It was really the first time Ohio State struggled to get to the end zone for six, settling for field goals in the first half.
Penn State has proven capable of keeping opponents out of the end zone. The Nittany Lions are tied for No. 21 in the FBS in red zone defense, allowing scores on 76% of opponent possessions. Of 19 scores, Penn State gave up 10 touchdowns and nine field goals.
Invasion of the Ball Snatchers
While it’s hard to say what we learned from the Buckeyes’ defense playing against a drained offense last week, one stat stands out: Ohio State forced six turnovers against Iowa’s offense, including one interception from linebacker Tommy Eichenberg that he returned for a touchdown.
Six turnovers, as one might imagine, is a lot for a single game, and is reflective of a defense that’s been able to keep offenses in check. In terms of the metrics that matter, Jim Knowles’ defense has risen to No. 2 in the nation in total defense, allowing just 240 offensive yards per game. It is also No. 5 in scoring defense, giving up under 15 points per game.
…And the Body Snatchers
Let’s talk about sacks, baby, because turnovers aren’t the only big plays this Ohio State defense has become accustomed to. The Buckeyes’ defense is averaging just under three sacks per game. They totaled five against Iowa.
Those sacks have proven important in ending drives, which this defense has been exceptional at. In particular, the defense has been phenomenal on third down, allowing opposing offenses to convert a mere 25% of the time (good for second in the FBS). Penn State’s offense, meanwhile, is No. 99 in the FBS in third-down conversions, converting just 35% of the time. The odds, for this matchup at least, would seem to be in Ohio State’s favor.
No-ah-nother scary movie
The hero of the Iowa game (yes, again, four field goals plus six extra points), Ohio State place kicker Noah Ruggles earned Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his performance against the Hawkeyes. When it comes to place kicking, despite a slow start for Ruggles in 2021, Ohio State certainly seems to have an edge over this weekend’s opponent.
Hopefully we will not need to call our kicker in such dramatic fashion this year against Penn State: Ruggles also had four field goals that proved to be the difference in the game in 2021 against the Nittany Lions.
What could be a better Halloween prequel than a thriller between two of the best teams in the Big Ten? Will it turn into an all-out slasher film like we’ve seen from Ohio State lately? Or will the teams keep us in suspense until the clock ticks to zeroes?
The Buckeyes are 15.5-point favorites on the road and have demonstrated skill at beating the spread and not letting up against opposing offenses. Their defense, which had been so anemic all last season, seems to have gotten its blood meal and is once again the fearsome, clever and precise vampire we know and love.
Penn State, though, brings a veteran quarterback, a much-improved running game and a defensive secondary that might not stop offenses in their tracks, but can slow them down a lot. And the Nittany Lions are coached by one of the few folks in the country who’s been able to keep things scary with Ohio State.
Ohio State will look to avoid a shop of horrors on the road—from zombie quarterbacks to Frank(lin)stein coaches and more. However, don’t expect Penn State to roll over in its grave so easily. The Nittany Lions will be fighting to avoid mysteriously disappearing from the College Football Playoff discussion.