Penn State is a slight underdog against Ohio State so, if it wants a victory Saturday night, it’ll have to win its matchups. Here are the key matchups to Saturday night’s game that we think fans should keep a closer eye on:
John McGonigal: Ohio State WRs vs. Penn State DBs
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins is a Heisman Trophy candidate thanks to a hot start to the 2018 season — but the guys he’s throwing to don’t get enough attention.
Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Terry McLaurin and the rest of Ohio State’s wide receivers might make up the most dynamic group of pass-catchers in the country. Penn State head coach James Franklin said Campbell and Hill “could change the game at any moment,” but that breakaway play could come from any of the Buckeyes’ wideouts.
Ohio State has four players with a catch of 40 yards or more, and Haskins’ targets actually lead the Big Ten with 10 receptions of 30-plus yards. The Buckeyes’ top five pass-catchers — Campbell, Hill, McLaurin, Austin Mack and Johnnie Dixon — are averaging 15.22 yards per reception.
In short, Penn State’s secondary, which might not be 100 percent healthy, will have its hands full.
John Reid has been rusty in his return from a season-ending knee injury, and nickel corner Donovan Johnson appeared in a sling after leaving Friday’s game early with an apparent shoulder injury. That leaves Amani Oruwariye and Tariq Castro-Fields as the Nittany Lions’ reliable corners, and beyond those two starter-caliber players, Zech McPhearson and Trent Gordon might need to make an impact.
Still, McLaurin — who called Oruwariye an “instinctive corner” — isn’t taking Penn State’s ball-hawking backs lightly.
“They really pride themselves on seeing the ball and going to go get it,” the Ohio State wideout said. “They drive on the ball really hard. So if we’re not in the right spot and the timing’s not right, it could be a turnover.”
Every week, Franklin harps on the importance of turnover ratio and explosive plays. Those battles — and possibly the outcome of the game — will be determined by Penn State’s secondary and Ohio State’s pass-catchers.
Josh Moyer: Penn State DL vs. Ohio State OL
That’s right, I’m looking to the trenches — and not just for a singular reason either.
The big question in this game is just how Penn State’s defense holds up against Ohio State because, based on what we’ve seen so far, the Nittany Lions are overmatched here. The Buckeyes boast the No. 2 scoring offense and No. 3 total offense; Penn State has the No. 35 scoring defense and No. 45 total defense.
The line will set the two-fold tone here. Haskins is already on pace to set the school single-season passing yard mark, and he’s completing 75.7 percent of his passes. He’s ahead of Trace McSorley right now in the Heisman race. If Penn State’s line can’t generate pressure, Haskins will pick this secondary apart. And here’s the bad news for Penn State: Ohio State’s line is surrendering just 1.5 sacks per game so far this season. On top of all that, this defensive line also has to slow down the run game and the ends need to set the edge.
Run defense has been an issue at times this season. The Nittany Lions allowed 214 rushing yards in the first half against Pitt, and they surrendered 245 yards over four quarters to Illinois. Statistically, Penn State has the nation’s No. 82 rushing defense. And there’s even more bad news for PSU: Running back Mike Weber is expected to return for Saturday night’s game, joining J.K Dobbins to form the Big Ten’s best RB tandem.
Maybe it’s not fair to put all of that on Penn State’s defensive line. But it has to start with them. If Ohio State’s line pushes PSU’s around, the linebackers aren’t good enough to make up for it.
The individual matchup to watch here is DE Shareef Miller and OT Isaiah Prince. Miller is Penn State’ pass-rush specialist, who leads the team in sacks (3) and is second in QB hurries (2). And Prince is one of the Buckeyes’ most improved players and someone who destroyed a Tulane defender on Saturday in a video that’s since gone viral.
Penn State is the underdog here. And if it’s looking to earn the mild upset, it needs to win in the trenches — something that should be easier said than done.