UNIVERSITY PARK — The only time the Ohio State offense isn’t dangerous is when its players are sitting on the bench.
So, how do you keep the Big Ten’s most vaunted offense — a unit that is putting up 45 points per game — on the sideline?
Penn State will try to find the answer to that on Saturday when the Nittany Lions (4-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) trek to Columbus to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0). Bill O’Brien already has an idea for a formula that will keep Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller off the field, however.
It’s just a matter of finding a way to sustain long drives while at the same time keeping the Buckeye defense on its heels. It’s a fine line, O’Brien said.
“It’s very, very difficult,” O’Brien said. “It’s really more about what your plan is going into the game. Maybe it has to do with field position. Maybe it has to do with the time of the game. Maybe it has to do with personnel groupings. Maybe there’s certain personnel groupings where you want to slow it down, other personnel groupings where you want to speed it up. So it’s a plan.”
So far, most of Penn State’s offensive game plans have centered around fast-paced attacks without the comfort of a huddle.
True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has adjusted to O’Brien’s quick pacing and although the Penn State coach utilizes three tempos — as O’Brien describes them, really fast, medium fast and a traditional pace with a huddle — the Nittany Lions have continued to hurry to the line of scrimmage each Saturday.
“Once you get into the game, it’s a feel for it,” O’Brien said. “And then once you get a feel for it, then it’s more about to me it’s the players have confidence in it. They’ll even say to you, they’ll say, “Hey, Coach, can we speed it up again?” And then as a coach, you’re going, “Maybe we need to slow this down.”
Penn State has mounted 21 drives that have resulted in touchdowns and have reached the end zone on one play twice. On their scoring drives that result in touchdowns, the Nittany Lions are averaging seven plays and eating just 2:38 off the clock per drive. Penn State has just one touchdown drive more than five minutes.
That may have to change against the Buckeyes who are killing the clock while racking up points.
Ohio State is averaging just under 33 minutes of possession time per game while holding opponents to 27:10. Penn State is holding on to the ball for an average of 29:41 each game.
Penn State couldn’t win the possession battle against the Buckeyes last season. Although the Nittany Lions notched an 18-play, 80-yard drive that took 5:45, which preceded a 12-play, 83-yard march in 4:25, they came on Penn State’s final two possessions of the game.
Turnovers ended two second-half drives before Penn State could get started. The second, when Penn State turned the ball over on downs in the third quarter, allowed Miller and the Ohio State offense to retake the field and mount their own 10-play, 57-yard drive in 3:11 that wore down the Penn State defense.
The Nittany Lions got the ball back, but with a 30-second three-and-out Miller was back to work. This time he engineered an eight-play, 85-yard drive that ended with the go-ahead touchdown in just 2:15.
“For the most part, we definitely were in the game,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said of last season’s meeting. “We’ve just got to play a little bit better and protect the ball better.”
This season, some of Penn State’s longest, most methodical drives have been killed by turnovers or missed opportunities. While it drained clock, Penn State didn’t put point on the board.
A 10-play, four-minute drive was sullied by an interception against Eastern Michigan. A 12-play opening drive that ate 4:29 off the clock in Bloomington, Ind. ended when Penn State turned the ball over on downs. In the same game, Penn State botched a field goal after running 12 plays that netted 50 yards and killed 4:55 of clock late in the first half.
“There’s a lot to be said for a kid that has confidence in what you’re doing, and they want to speed it up,” O’Brien said. “So there’s a lot of factors that go into it, and again, it’s week to week, it’s a different challenge, and obviously it’s a big challenge for us this week versus Ohio State.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.