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Five stats that could decide Saturday’s Ohio State-Penn State game

Neither the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions have played an opponent as talented as they will on Saturday.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

The eyes of the college football world will be on The Horseshoe on Saturday as the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes play host to the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions at 12 noon ET in a game that will be broadcast on Fox. Both “Big Noon Kickoff” and “ESPN College GameDay” will be on campus to cover the game from all of its angles. However, we wanted to dive into some of the stats that very well could spell the difference in the game this weekend.

Since you likely know all about the Ohio State team at this point, we decided to focus specifically on things that the Penn State squad does — or doesn’t do — particularly well in an effort to get a more well-rounded picture as to what the game will look like on Saturday. Of course, as is also true with Ohio State, it is a bit difficult to fully know how much of these statistics are a product of Penn State’s prowess on the field and what is a byproduct of a pretty underwhelming slate of opponents during the first half of the season.

I suppose we will find that out in 24 hours’ time, but in the meantime, let us know what you think will be the biggest determinant of the outcome on Saturday afternoon in the comments below.

1) Penn State has allowed only one passing touchdown on the season

Since Ryan Day arrived in Columbus, there has been little doubt that the Buckeyes are a pass-first team. While the OSU head coach likes to preach balance, even when attempting to win a game by running stretch plays into the boundary, the Buckeyes are best when they are getting the ball in the hands of their deep, electric, and sometimes otherworldly receiving corps.

To combat this aspect of OSU’s game plan, the Nittany Lions have one of the best passing defenses in the country, allowing only a single score through the air on the year and giving up just 121.2 passing yards per game thus far. Admittedly, their defense is stout in all aspects, not just against the pass. PSU’s D ranks second nationally in points allowed per game at 8 — Ohio State is third at 9.7. Against the run, the Nittany Lions are third in FBS allowing just 72.50 yards per game, having given up a paltry five touchdowns so far in the season.

But especially of note for the Buckeyes is how well they’ve done against the pass. Compared to the one touchdown pass allowed, PSU has collected seven interceptions and is holding opposing offenses to an FBS-low 4.6 yards per attempt.

Conversely, the Buckeyes are tied for ninth nationally with more than double that average at 9.6 ypa. Even at 308 yards per game (good for 15th nationally), the Buckeye passing attack has not yet been as productive in 2023 as it has in recent years, but almost assuredly, Kyle McCord, Marvin Harrison Jr., Cade Stover, et al. will need to have their best games of the season for the home team to come out on top tomorrow.

2) Penn State is 129th nationally in offensive plays of 20 yards or more, but that doesn’t really matter

The downfall of Ohio State’s team in 2022 was the defense’s tendency to allow major chunk plays, many of which turned into touchdowns. That was the focus of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ entire offseason as he has retooled his entire approach and has pulled way back on bringing extra pressure, choosing instead to allow his rock-solid secondary to keep plays in front of them.

That should continue to be the case on Saturday, as Penn State has only wracked up 16 plays of 20 yards or more on the season, which ranks 129th out of 133 teams in the FBS. For comparison’s sake, OSU has 35, which ranks 40th in the country.

The difference is that on defense, Ohio State is sixth nationally allowing only 15 plays of 20+ yards, and is second in the country giving up only four plays of 30+ yards; a striking difference from the defensive unit that plagued the Buckeyes last season.

Now, this is not to say that PSU cannot move the ball. In fact, they have the second-best time of possession in the country behind only Air Force. The Nittany Lions hold onto the ball for an average of 34:35.83 per game. So, while they have not yet been able to hit big plays, their sturdy running attack and efficient short-to-intermediate passing game allows them to keep moving the chains. James Franklin’s team is 20th nationally converting 48.28% of their third downs and No. 1 in the country picking up 91.67% of their fourth down attempts.

3) Penn State leads the country in turnover margin at +1.83

There is a theory in football that a significant portion of whether or not a team is “good” at creating turnovers is simply luck. But, when a team continues to generate takeaways on a regular basis, it can be very telling. So far this year, Penn State has taken the ball away 13 times (seven INTs, six fumbles recovered); that total is good for 15th in FBS. However, when combined with the fact that the team has only given the ball away twice (both fumbles) that breaks down to a +1.83 turnover margin, which is tied with Oklahoma for the best in the country.

Now, admittedly, four of those takeaways were fumbles from the Iowa game, but it is still an impressive total. On the other side of the ratio, first-year starting quarterback Drew Allar has not thrown an interception this season, but he has yet play a secondary as talented as the Buckeyes in his career.

If OSU — even potentially without No. 1 cornerback Denzel Burke — can find ways to take the ball away from the PSU offense, that could go a long way to upsetting the formula that the Nittany Lions have used to win games so handily this year.

4) Penn State is fourth nationally in opponents’ third down conversion percentage

One of the major issues that the Buckeyes have had so far this season is converting on third down. They have seemingly figured some things out in recent weeks to raise their conversion percentage to 44% (still only good for 41st nationally), but they will be in for a much tougher battle than they are used to on Saturday.

This season, Penn State is allowing opponents to convert on only 26.51% of their third down attempts, good for fourth in FBS. They are less successful on fourth down, allowing teams to pick up 45.45% on those downs — which amounts to the 56th-best total in the country.

The key to the Nittany Lions' efficiency on third down has been in keeping opposing offenses behind the chains. So, if Day and his offense can find ways to get into manageable situations on third down — or better yet, avoid third downs altogether! — it should go a long way to allowing the Buckeyes to sustain drives and eat into PSU’s time-of-possession advantage.

5) Penn State is third nationally with 4.50 sacks per game

Ohio State has allowed 10 sacks in six games so far this season, which comes out to a respectable 1.67 per game — good for 40th in the country. However, they have not faced a defense like Penn State’s yet. The Nittany Lions are averaging a whopping 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss per game in 2023.

There is no question that Ohio State’s offensive line has been its biggest weakness throughout the first half of their season, but that has mostly manifested itself in run blocking. The Notre Dame defensive front presented a challenge for the Buckeyes, but Kyle McCord was only sacked once in that game.

The first-year starter has proven to be fairly effective against pressure this season, both in moving and escaping the pocket, as well as stepping up into rushers. Last week against Purdue, he seemed to be throwing off of his back foot more than he ever has before, and while it was fairly effective against the Boilermakers, he is unlikely to be as productive that way against a defense as dynamic as Penn State’s.

So, this will be a massive test for the OSU offensive line, and whether or not they can avoid failing, let alone pass with flying colors, could be the difference between a Buckeye win or loss. Of course, the game plan and play calling will play a huge factor in the o-line’s success on Saturday. McCord has hit some impressive deep shots, but he has seemed to be more comfortable in the intermediate range, getting rid of the ball quickly and allowing the sheer talent advantage that his wide receivers have over defenders to be the difference.

If Day focuses on getting the ball out of McCord’s hands quickly — to receivers, tight ends, and even running backs — that would obviously help to negate the pass rush advantage that PSU has in the game.