It’s a big week for Penn State football.
The Nittany Lions (5-1) will travel to Columbus to take on top-ranked Ohio State (6-0) for an 8 p.m. game the Buckeyes’ marketing staff is calling “A Dark Night in the Shoe,” a nod to the team’s debut of all-black uniforms and matte-black helmets. It will be head coach James Franklin’s first time coaching at the Shoe — Ohio Stadium — in what is shaping up to be a hostile environment.
“Obviously, we know that we’re hated by the Ohio State community,” said offensive tackle Andrew Nelson on Tuesday to media.
Franklin also addressed media on Tuesday afternoon about the upcoming matchup. He said he is trying to keep the team balanced, despite the enormity of the task and opportunity ahead of them.
“I want to keep our plan consistent,” said Franklin. “On Sunday, when we met and reviewed the (Indiana) game film, (and tried) to enjoy the win for a few more hours before we get on to the next opponent…(but) then I did say, ‘What an unbelievable opportunity we have this week, being able to go play at Ohio State, against the No. 1 team in the country, what a great opportunity.’
“And then after that, it won’t be discussed the rest of the week.”
The players who spoke to media on Tuesday — Brandon Bell, Jordan Lucas, Jason Cabinda and Nelson — all seemed loose and relaxed. Franklin did as well, even joking with reporters that quarterback Christian Hackenberg is “competing with (Ohio State’s) J.T. Barrett to be the best dual-threat quarterback in the Big Ten,” after Hackenberg’s two rushing scores last week.
Staying loose is probably the best option this week. The Buckeyes have, on their roster, one of the nation’s top defensive players in Joey Bosa, who plays close to every snap, and one of the nation’s best running backs in Ezekiel Elliott, who has 835 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, and averages 6.9 yards per carry. Ohio State also has Braxton Miller, who converted to starting receiver from quarterback as the season began, despite head coach Urban Meyer never actually seeing Miller catch a pass, and has become a thriller in space with a 14.8-yards-per-catch average, two touchdowns and 192 yards. He also has 161 rushing yards and a touchdown.
As if that’s not enough, the two-headed quarterback attack utilized by Ohio State features big, athletic players in Cardale Jones, who has thrown for 1,158 yards and seven touchdowns (with five interceptions), and J.T. Barrett, who, after leading the Buckeyes all last year with 2,834 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, has largely been a backup this season — but still has thrown two touchdowns and rushed for three more. Barrett has been effective recently whenever Ohio State is in the red zone, leading the offense as a runner and going 3-for-3 on his rush attempts for touchdowns in the process.
“He’s just a really, really dynamic athlete,” Franklin said of Barrett. “It just gives you another option that you have to deal with.”
Franklin said the many options Ohio State has at its disposal, like Barrett, cause “headaches” for a defense.
“You defend the run, you defend the pass, and now, you’re trying to defend the pass and the quarterback takes off on you…as effective as it was on Saturday with him, I can see this (package with Barrett in the red zone) continuing to grow.”
Penn State will try its best to mimic what they’ll see out of the Buckeyes this week in practice to prepare, but, as far as the pressure of the game itself, that’s not to be discussed.
“There will be enough of that from the outside,” said Franklin. “We don’t need to do that internally, keep our approach consistent.”
Huff’s actions addressed
ESPN cameras and those watching the sidelines from within Beaver Stadium on Saturday saw running backs coach Charles Huff getting into an argument with Mark Allen after Allen fumbled against Indiana.
Allen was seen jawing at Huff, and Huff responded by grabbing a handful of the running back’s jersey and shoving him toward the back of the sideline.
“That was something that’s been addressed very clearly with our staff,” said Franklin. “Individually, me and Charles have had a conversation about that…I know who Charles Huff is as a man, I know who Charles Huff is as a coach, and those things have been addressed. There’s not a place for that.”
Barkley’s return up to trainers
True freshman running back Saquon Barkley has been inching ever closer to his return to the field after suffering what appeared to be an ankle injury against San Diego State and missing the games since. Barkley caused quite a bit of excitement in the games prior with his juke-step-shimmy style of running around, over and through opponents on his way to almost 400 yards rushing and three touchdowns in just three games.
Franklin confirmed that Barkley has been taking limited reps in practice since last week. But, he said, whether he’s ready to return is not up to him.
“The days of the coaches making the decisions on who plays or not are long gone,” said Franklin. “They’ve been gone for a long time. We have doctors, we have trainers who make those decisions…ultimately, at the end, (they) make those calls.”
Franklin said “it’s different” with freshmen to come back from injury than it would be for older players.
“A freshman, who hasn’t played a whole lot of football anyway, now he’s out a couple of weeks, getting that guy back and ready to play is important,” he said.
“This is an opportunity for growth for Saquon, an opportunity for him to really work on the mental aspect of the game, and for him to handle adversity.”
‘Joey is our guy’
Penn State kicker Joey Julius had a difficult outing last weekend, missing two consecutive extra-point attempts.
“Joey’s our guy,” said Franklin. “We’re not in the business of a guy has a rough day or makes a mistake, of changing our plan or our mind. Joey’s our guy, he’s done a great job all season, he’s working really, really hard, he’s grown so much…now he’s going to have to come out and show it.”