Penn State hasn’t experienced a game quite like this in two decades.
When the No. 2 Nittany Lions and No. 6 Buckeyes face on Saturday, it’ll be the highest-ranked Big Ten game Penn State has played since 1997, when it was No. 2 in the country and hosted No. 4 Michigan.
This is also the eighth time Penn State and Ohio State will match up as top-10 teams. In those scenarios, the Buckeyes have a 4-3 advantage.
Can Penn State even it up on Saturday? Well, how the Nittany Lions handle these keys could determine that.
Hamilton still hunting history
Much was made about DaeSean Hamilton breaking Deon Butler’s all-time receptions record a few weeks ago against Indiana, and rightfully so.
But put the old-style quill pen down. The senior wideout might not be done rewriting the Penn State history books.
Hamilton needs nine yards on Saturday to surpass Allen Robinson for the third spot on Penn State’s all-time receiving yards list. That’ll happen against Ohio State.
Now, unless Penn State reaches the Big Ten title game and College Football Playoff, Bobby Engram’s all-time record is probably safe. Hamilton has 2,466 and would need 561 more to outpace Engram’s 3,026.
But the No. 2 spot is still attainable. Deon Butler’s sitting there with 2,771 receiving yards. Hamilton would need 306 — or 51.0 per game over the next six contests — to top it.
That’s more than doable, and Hamilton can take a strong step toward No. 2 in The Shoe.
All eyes will be on Penn State running back Saquon Barkley this weekend, understandably so. But there’ll be a darn good running back across the sideline from Barkley and the Nittany Lions.
J.K. Dobbins is a beast, and he’s only a freshman. Have fun with that the next couple years, Big Ten.
Dobbins boasts a 7.8 yards per carry average — third-best in the country among those who have 100 carries or more, sitting behind only Stanford’s Bryce Love (10.3) and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (9.2).
The 5-foot-10, 208-pounder joins Archie Griffin and Maurice Clarett as the only Ohio State freshmen to rush for at least 170 yards twice in a season.
He’s that good. The Nittany Lions know it, too.
“We recruited J.K. Dobbins, and I think actually Coach (Charles) Huff said about two months ago that he’ll be the starting running back before the season’s over,” James Franklin said Tuesday. “And that’s no disrespect to Mike Weber, we think he’s fantastic too. So I think that he’s a special player.”
Added Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer: “He’s a tremendous football player. ... Just focus on gap control, doing those type of things, rush lanes so we’re where we’re supposed to be when we need to be.”
Curtis Samuel 2.0
Penn State safety Marcus Allen said one Ohio State player in particular — speedster Parris Campbell — stood out on film.
“It seems like they’re trying to use him like Curtis Samuel last year,” Allen said. “He definitely caught my eye.”
Allen’s right. The Buckeyes are utilizing Campbell similarly to Samuel, a 2017 second-round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers.
Campbell — a high school track star like Samuel — broke the Ohio state record in the 60-meter dash at 6.85 seconds in 2014. Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson love that speed, and it shows.
The Akron native has 28 catches for 405 yards, five carries for 51 yards and eight kickoff returns for 312 yards. Campbell’s averaging 18.7 yards per touch to go with three offensive touchdowns. He’s just shy of the 1.2 kickoff returns per game qualifier to rank among the nation’s best. If Campbell’s 39.0 yards per return average qualified, it would be second in the country.
“He’s playing with confidence, and they’re going to get the ball to him any way possible,” Penn State cornerback Grant Haley said. “A lot of bubble screens, a lot of crossing routes, any way to get the ball in his hands so he can make plays. He’s athletic, and he’s having a lot of confidence right now. And confidence is one of those things that, as you keep making more plays, you just keep rising and rising.”
After reading about Campbell and Dobbins’ big play ability, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Ohio State is tied for the most “chunk plays” — rushes or receptions of 20 or more yards — in the Big Ten.
Naturally, the Buckeyes are tied with the Nittany Lions.
Penn State and Ohio State rank 12th nationally with 46 plays of 20 or more yards this season. The only Power Five teams they trail are Oklahoma (58), Louisville (56), Oklahoma State (56), UCLA (49) and Stanford (48).
Barkley’s 15 chunk plays are best in the conference. DaeSean Hamilton ranks second in the Big Ten with 13, while Juwan Johnson (four) and Saeed Blacknall (three) have also made contributions.
Meanwhile, Dobbins leads Ohio State with 10, followed by Campbell (six), Johnnie Dixon (five), Terry McLaurin (four) and J.T. Barrett (three).
Even though Penn State is ranked higher than the Buckeyes, Ohio State is the betting favorite at home. The Nittany Lions opened as 7-point underdogs, the first time they haven’t been favored this season.
The Nittany Lions, who are 7-0 against the spread according to OddsSharks.com, don’t put much stock into what Vegas says. James Franklin said in the past that he doesn’t know how spreads work, and Barkley admitted Wednesday that he was unaware that the Nittany Lions were underdogs.
“But hey, you can’t control that. We control what we can control,” Barkley said. “That’s to come out Saturday, push each other and there’s going to be adversity. ... At the end of the game, we just need one more point than them.”