Coming off back-to-back wins and a bye week, the Nittany Lions have an opportunity to snare a statement win for head coach James Franklin, as Penn State (4-2) takes on No. 2 Ohio State (6-0) at 8 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
It will be a White Out, an annual occasion that has produced memorable evenings in the past — especially against the Buckeyes.
Since the White Out started in 2004, Penn State is 5-7 in such games, and 1-2 against Ohio State. The Nittany Lions took out then-No. 6 Ohio State 17-10 in 2005, but fell to the Buckeyes 35-23 in 2012 and 31-24 in double overtime in 2014.
Penn State is hoping it can even out the White Out series with Ohio State on Saturday night.
“This is exactly why you come to Penn State,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “You come to Penn State to play in games like this.”
Week after week, the Nittany Lions struggled on the ground as quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley and the offensive line grew into offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense and became more comfortable with read-options.
But everything seemed to click in Penn State’s 38-14 win over Maryland on Oct. 8, as Barkley gashed the Terrapins for 202 yards and McSorley was composed running with the football, picking up a career-high 81 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
“I do think Trace’s ability to run changes things,” Franklin said. “I think it helps your offensive line, and I think it also affects the defensive coordinator in things that they are going to call. ... We need Trace to continue to be a factor in the run game with scrambles, with design runs, with all those things. That needs to be a part of what we do and who we are from here on out.”
That cohesion running the football will be tested Saturday, though. Not only is right tackle Andrew Nelson likely lost for the season after leaving the Maryland game with a leg injury, but the Ohio State defense is also imposing.
The Buckeyes lost several players to the NFL since last season but boast the third-best run defense in the Big Ten (120.8 rushing yards per game) as well as the best third-down defense (30.8 percent success rate) in the conference behind only Michigan and Wisconsin.
“It’s a formidable challenge,” Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said. “I think they’re every bit as good as Michigan from a front-seven standpoint.”
The Nittany Lions could have success throwing the football if running doesn’t work. Ohio State owns the sixth-best pass defense in the country (159.5 yards per game), but facing run-oriented teams such as Wisconsin and Indiana contributes to that.
Plus, McSorley has succeeded throwing the football, especially deep. The redshirt sophomore has 1,436 passing yards this season, and owns the highest QBR among Big Ten quarterbacks throwing the deep ball (passes of 20-plus yards), according to ESPN.
McSorley has connected on 13 of 33 deep passes for 600 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
“You hit a couple big plays, the crowd starts feeling it,” McSorley said. “I think that would be huge for us.”
Penn State’s defense was burned by Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett in 2014 and 2015, but an optimistic, healthier unit hopes the third time is a charm in containing the dual-threat signal-caller.
Barrett is the third-favorite to win this year’s Heisman Trophy, behind only Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, with good reason. The junior has thrown for 1,207 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions while running for 434 yards and six scores.
Take into consideration that Barrett has seven touchdowns combined the past two meetings with Penn State, and the Nittany Lions are well-acquainted with the 2014 Big Ten Quarterback of the Year.
“It could be a pass play, and the pass could be all locked down,” Penn State safety Marcus Allen said, “and he’ll just take off and keep the play alive.”
Allen and the defense could get much-needed reinforcements to deal with Barrett and the Ohio State attack. After missing a combined nine games, linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell were practicing this week for the first time since incurring their respective injuries.
Cabinda and Bell, two leaders of the defense, would be critical additions to a linebacking corps that’s endured its fair share of carnage this season. While Franklin said it’d be unrealistic for both players to be out on the field for 60-70 plays on Saturday, having them back would be welcomed.
“It’d be a nice bonus,” Franklin noted.
Speaking of the front-seven, Penn State’s defensive line has caused Ohio State fits in recent years despite Barrett’s success. Led by now-NFL players such as Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, the Nittany Lions had 10 tackles for loss (two sacks) and seven TFL (three sacks) against the Buckeyes in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Penn State lost that trio of havoc-wreakers to the draft, but its front-four is still getting the job done. The Nittany Lions have 52 tackles for loss this season, sixth-most in the country.
“I think that’s the group that has probably grown as much as anybody,” Franklin said of the defensive line. “I think that’s the biggest difference between now and game one.”
Early on in this game field position figures to be pivotal, and the Nittany Lions have their best weapon in that department returning.
Freshman punter Blake Gillikin, who was limited against Maryland with a hamstring injury, will be full-go on Saturday, according to Franklin. Gillikin’s 42.3 yards per punt ranks 43rd nationally and sixth among freshmen punters.
Meanwhile, placekicker Tyler Davis is still perfect, now 18 for 18 in his career and 10 for 10 on the season after converting a 30-yarder against the Terrapins. Davis, a redshirt junior, is one of only four kickers in the country who have attempted 10 or more field goals this season and not missed.
On kickoffs, Penn State’s Joey Julius will need to be cautious. Ohio State wide receiver and kickoff returner Parris Campbell averages 29.9 yards per return, 10th-best nationally, and he showcased his big-play ability a couple of weeks ago, breaking loose for a 92-yard return and setting up a crucial Barrett touchdown against Indiana.