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Matchups to Know: Ohio State vs. Penn State

A look at some of the key individual battles in this weekend’s Big Ten showdown.

Ohio State v Purdue Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

No. 7 Penn State travels to Columbus, Ohio this weekend to take on No. 3 Ohio State in one of the biggest and potentially most impactful games of the 2023 college football season. Both teams enter the game undefeated, but only one will come out of Saturday’s contest with that perfect record intact. With the nation’s eyes locking into the Nittany Lions versus the Buckeyes, what are some of the individual matchups to keep an eye on that will ultimately decide this game?

Marvin Harrison Jr. vs. Kalen King/Johnny Dixon

Ohio State has a lot of playmakers on offense, but of course none are bigger than Marvin Harrison Jr. The nation’s most talented wide receiver feels like he hasn’t quite hit his stride yet this season, but the Route Man still leads the Big Ten with 604 yards receiving and has eclipsed 160 yards in a game twice through six weeks. Harrison Jr. requires a lot of attention, and even when he isn’t catching passes on his own, the extra help needed to cover him on one side opens things up for guys like a hopefully healthy Emeka Egbuka, in addition to Julian Fleming and Cade Stover.

Marv will likely see a lot of corners Kalen King and Johnny Dixon on Saturday. King, a preseason All-American, ranked second in FBS a year ago with 18 pass breakups as the No. 2 guy across from Joey Porter Jr. As the top dog this year, teams have been avoiding King like the plague, only targeting the DB 18 times thus far. As the new No. 2, Dixon has performed really well in coverage, allowing just a 50% completion rate when targeted this season with two PBUs and a pick. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Penn State bracket Harrison Jr. with one of those guys as well as another safety or linebacker.

Chop Robinson/Adias Isaac vs. Josh Simmons/Josh Fryar

One of the scariest matchups for Ohio State fans heading into this game are Penn State’s defensive ends against the Buckeyes’ offensive tackles. Adisa Isaac is tied for the Big Ten lead with five total sacks on the season, while Chop Robinson is one of the most highly touted defensive linemen in the country. Robinson is pegged as a likely first round NFL Draft pick this coming April, totaling 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss during his collegiate career between both the Nittany Lions and Maryland, where he played his freshman campaign. As a whole, Penn State leads the Big Ten with 27 sacks.

Josh Fryar and Josh Simmons meanwhile have been... on the field. Ohio State’s offensive line has seemingly chosen a different player to have a poor performance in each of the team’s first six games, with Simmons having more difficulty than Fryar to this point. The entire front has been a soft spot for this year’s Buckeyes, and while their 10 sacks allowed ranks them middle of the pack in the B1G, they cannot afford to be subpar in keeping Kyle McCord clean against Penn State. The run blocking has been an even bigger bugaboo for the OSU O-line, but if Robinson and Isaac are able to eat against Fryar and Simmons, it’ll be a long day for Ryan Day’s offense as a whole.

Eichenberg/Chambers/Simon vs. Kaytron Allen/Nicholas Singleton

On the flip side, Ohio State’s linebackers need to bring their A-game against these Penn State running backs. It had been a tough couple of weeks for Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg, as the Buckeyes’ two starting linebackers really struggled against both Notre Dame and Maryland. Eichenberg got back into the flow of things against Purdue, and leads Ohio State with 46 total tackles on the season, but Chambers has lost a lot of playing time to Cody Simon, who tied for a team-high eight tackles last time out against the Boilermakers. It would not be a surprise if Eichenberg and Simon are with the ones on Saturday.

Whoever takes the majority of snaps for Ohio State at linebacker, they will be primarily in charge of slowing down the Nittany Lions’ dynamic RB duo of Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton. The two have put up very similar stats to this point in the year, with Allen at 375 yards and three touchdowns and Singleton at 362 yards and a team-high six TDs. Singleton is also the far bigger receiving threat of the two, catching 13 passes for 111 yards and another score through the air. Even despite some inconsistency at linebacker, Ohio State has held opponents to 3.1 yards per carry this season, but they will have their hands full against this one-two punch.

Kyle McCord vs. Drew Allar

While these guys won’t be competing against each other in a direct sense, a lot of eyes will be on the two starting quarterbacks in this game. Statistically, McCord has marginally outdueled the Ohio native Allar through six games. McCord has thrown for 1,651 yards with 11 touchdowns and one pick, while Allar has thrown for 1,254 yards with 12 TDs and no INTs. Allar has completed slightly more of his attempts, with a 65.2% completion rate compared to McCord’s 64.1%, but McCord is far better in yards per attempt (9.7 to Allar’s 6.9) and passer efficiency rating (165.9 to 145.3).

Obviously these two guys play in two very different offenses. Ohio State is far more pass heavy and throws a lot more deep balls, leading to more explosive play potential. Penn State, meanwhile, is more adept at running the football, and while Allar hasn’t taken a ton of deep shots, he is incredibly accurate and has yet to turn the ball over this season. The Buckeyes have the No. 1 passing offense in the Big Ten, but Penn State has the best passing defense in the conference. Ohio State has had trouble getting to the QB this season, and Allar will have no problem working the short passing game down the field with a clean pocket.

Ryan Day vs. The Playbook

Clearly, this is not actually a matchup in this game, but which version of its head coach Ohio State sees on Saturday will go a long way in deciding the outcome.

Ryan Day has had his struggles with play-calling in big games. Most of the time, the offense plays far too conservative against the better teams on its schedule. We have seen this type of approach cost the Buckeyes on numerous occasions, and even when it hasn’t led directly to a loss, it has turned some potential runaways into nail-biters. On the flip side, Day’s scheme against Georgia last season was excellent, with a diverse and creative offensive design that was a Marvin Harrison Jr. injury away from playing for a national title. Ohio State needs less of the former and more of the latter.

Which Day do we see against Penn State? The Ohio State headman has come under fire at various times this season for his play-calling woes, and he cannot afford to have a bad performance with the play sheet against a team that will thoroughly test the Buckeyes. We saw some really good things at Purdue last weekend, including increased variance in the run game and a goal line package centered around mobile backup QB Devin Brown. The Nittany Lions are a very good football team, but Ohio State is still more talented on paper. If Day calls the plays like he has the talent advantage rather than playing scared against a worthy adversary, the Buckeyes will be in prime position to remain unbeaten.