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Behind Enemy Lines: Inside information on Penn State before tomorrow’s game

Our friends from Black Shoe Diaries pull the curtain back to give us the unbiased truth about the Nittany Lions.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In preparation for the No. 2 Ohio Buckeyes (7-0, 4-0) taking on the No. 13 Penn State Nittany Lions (6-1, 3-1) in Beaver Stadium today, we chatted with Brian Bennett from Black Shoes Diaries, our SB Nation sibling site that covers Penn State athletics.

It doesn’t matter who is on each team, or how their seasons have gone up until this point, because anytime the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions square off, you just know that it’s gonna get weird. On Saturday, Oct. 29, Ohio State will make only its second road trip of the season when the team travels to Happy Valley to take on James Franklin’s Nittany Lions. PSU’s only loss of the season came in a 41-17 defeat to TTUN in which the Skunk Bears rushed for 418 yards on 55 carries.

There’s no doubt that the Nits will have a game plan to prevent a repeat of that performance, but the Buckeyes will assuredly be looking to reestablish their ground game after an underwhelming outing against Iowa last week.

If you want more of the Nittany Lions’ perspective on the game, make sure that you check out all of BSD’s coverage on their website or on Twitter @BSDTweet.

LGHL: What would you consider the identity of this Penn State team? They are in the middle of the Big Ten pack in most statistical categories, but the talent and eye-test would indicate that they are much more than the raw numbers would indicate.

BSD: This is a great question and one that a lot of Penn State fans have asked, especially on offense. I’ll tell you what James Franklin wants it to be: a team that hits explosive plays, but has the ability to grind out games with its run game. Basically, be Ohio State. Defensively, I’d say they’ve lived up to what Franklin wants (with Michigan being the clear outlier): a physical, fast, and opportunistic unit that uses a ton of different players.

Ultimately, I’d say the most identifiable aspect of Penn State is its inconsistency. That’s been the case for much of Franklin’s tenure - this year included. The Lions have spent time ranked in the Top Ten in the country every year since, and including, 2016. But in that same time, there have been some inexplicable collapses and no shows. Those inconsistencies even show up within individual games - like last Saturday when Penn State’s offense was lifeless and couldn’t even muster a first down for much of the first quarter before scoring on six out of seven drives in the second and third quarters.

LGHL: Ohio State has one of the most consistent and prolific passing attacks in the country, but really hasn’t faced a great secondary yet this season. That will change on Saturday. Who are the guys that Ryan Day and C.J. Stroud should be concerned about and what does this PSU secondary do best?

BSD: As I alluded to in the previous question, I think one strength Penn State has with its secondary is its sheer numbers. I won’t give you a full roster rundown, but you’ll see eight or nine players get significant snaps at the corner and safety positions. The two most notable are the starting cornerbacks. Also, all of those guys are aggressive. Joey Porter Jr. gets the headlines because of his length, his bloodlines, and for being a three-year starter. Quietly on the other side of the field though, sophomore Kalen King might be just as good. I won’t pretend to be a draft expert, but I do feel confident in saying that in 2025, if not sooner, both of those guys will be on NFL rosters. Sometimes, however, that group gets too physical. They’ve cut down on penalties, but last year, it was a big problem - especially with Porter. I’d also be remiss to not mention all-conference safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who has eight interceptions since the beginning of the 2021 season.

You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell - Penn State should be scared about Ohio State exploiting the middle of the field. The weakness, which I’ll get into more with your next question, is Penn State’s linebacker group. They weren’t good in coverage against Purdue early in the year and some of those same concerns showed up in a rather non-eventful win against Central Michigan. I think we’ve all been holding our breath for the past few weeks thinking about how Day/Stroud will look to attack there.

LGHL: Everyone is aware of how many rushing yards the Nittany Lions gave up in their lone loss on the season. While OSU’s running game is constructed differently, do you think that that type of performance is replicable, or was that just a weird, flukey outlier?

BSD: Well, that was the third most rushing yards a Penn State team has ever allowed. So as a fan, I’m really hopeful that Ohio State can’t replicate what happened in Ann Arbor. I don’t doubt, however, that the Buckeyes can have success running against Penn State. Manny Diaz made some adjustments, something he didn’t do in Michigan Stadium, and Penn State was stout against the run against Minnesota. Keep in mind, all of that was with the reality that the Golden Gophers were playing a backup quarterback who they were trying to protect in the White Out.

I know Ohio State had some struggles with its rushing game at home against Iowa, so Day and offensive line coach Justin Frye (shout out to Frye, who I played high school football and basketball against) will want to establish that again as November approaches. Penn State’s defensive line, outside of defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher, is undersized and the Lions’ linebackers tackled terribly against Michigan. Penn State has passed two of its three tests against opponents with talented backs, but Ohio State has the explosiveness to carve up this defense on the ground.

LGHL: All Big Ten fans (especially PSU fans) kind of know what they are going to get from Sean Clifford; not the best passer in the league, but someone who is experienced, reliable, and able to make plays with both his arm and his legs. For Nittany Lion fans, has that been enough this season, or are they itching for Drew Allar to take the reigns sooner, rather than later?

BSD: Oh boy, how much time do we have? Here’s a fact for you: Justin Fields famously committed to Penn State back in December 2016. That verbal happened more than a year AFTER Sean Clifford committed to Penn State. Having followed Penn State football since the early 1990s, I’m well versed in a lot of quarterback conversations and controversies. Yet, I’ve never seen one quite like this. Seemingly every single game day or post game thread on our site winds up a referendum on Clifford. He has twice been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, including last week against Minnesota. But, like Penn State’s identity, Clifford is most known for his inconsistency. He should also be known for his resilience. There was a real question as to whether or not Clifford was even going to play last week and he answered with one of the best games of his career.

The simple answer to your question is this: most Penn State fans are ready to see Drew Allar in extended action. He’s done enough in limited action to generate excitement. However, I disagree with the sentiment shared by some that Penn State fans would be willing to sacrifice victories to get Clifford out of the lineup. You can’t pin the Michigan loss on Clifford. At the same time, I think many in the fanbase are viewing this weekend’s game as Clifford’s Waterloo. Spring an upset of the No. 2 Buckeyes and Clifford has a career defining moment and Penn State remains in the playoff hunt. But, in the more likely event of a loss on Saturday, most would agree that it should be Allar starting the final four games of the regular season.

LGHL: I won’t ask you to pick a score for the game (although you are welcome to provide one if you would like), but how do you think this game plays out?

BSD: I think it will mirror last season’s game at Ohio Stadium in many ways. I think Clifford will be up to the task of keeping it interesting, though I also fear the backbreaking turnovers like he had in 2021. In that one, Penn State tightened in the red zone and frustrated Day/Stroud, forcing Ohio State to settle for a few field goals. I think Penn State tests the Buckeyes, but the Lions lack the firepower to get enough touchdowns of their own to pull the upset.