Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson has seen a lot from Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins — the accurate arm, the quick release, the poise in the pocket.
But there’s one thing he hasn’t seen yet.
“We have to see what happens when he gets pressure in his face, when he gets rattled and how he responds to that,” Johnson said. “Because I don’t know if he’s been — I guess in the TCU game he was tested a little bit — but we want to make sure we’re not letting him be comfortable.
“He seems to be on the money when he’s comfortable.”
Johnson didn’t need to watch film long to realize just how dangerous Haskins is when he has time. The Buckeyes quarterback — who’s on an early pace to shatter his school’s single-season passing record — is completing 75.7 percent of his passes, the top mark in the Power Five. Against Tulane, on plays without feeling pressure, he was 21 of 22 for 304 yards and five touchdowns.
That’s a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
“We’re going to apply pressure to him, get in his face, which would make it hard on any quarterback back there to throw the ball,” Johnson added. “We’re going to try not to give him the rein to sit back there comfortably and have access to his receivers.”
That’s easier said than done. TCU tried to pressure Haskins, but without success. According to Pro Football Focus, the Horned Frogs sent extra rushers on 17 pass attempts — but they finished the game with just one sack, three QB hurries and no forced turnovers. Haskins completed nine of those passes for 150 yards and two scores.
So the question not only becomes whether pressure will impact Haskins, whom online sportsbook Bovada pegs as the No. 3 Heisman favorite, but if the Nittany Lions’ inconsistent defense — which is No. 8 in sacks and No. 6 in tackles for loss nationally — will be able to get to him at all.
James Franklin called this Ohio State’s best offensive line since he started coaching in the conference. Center Michael Jordan — no, not that one — was a preseason All-American by The Sporting News, and offensive tackle Isaiah Prince just went viral for destroying a Tulane end.
Haskins also has a tendency to get the ball out fast, although Franklin suspected that was because he usually only has to go through one or two progressions. After all, Ohio State’s wideouts are pretty good too.
“We’re going to have to make him uncomfortable in the pocket and get to him,” Franklin said. “Some of that will have to be through pressure, but some of that’s going to have to be with four down. That’ll be a challenge.”
Several outlets — including CBS Sports, The Big Lead and Pro Football Focus — already project him to be a first-round NFL draft pick in 2019, as a redshirt sophomore. So far this season, he’s thrown for 1,194 yards — which puts him on pace to shatter Ohio State’s single season passing record (Joe Germaine; 3,330) by more than 500 yards.
So, every time a defensive player was asked about the key to stopping Haskins, the reply this week was to disrupt him in some way. Safety Garrett Taylor said Penn State needs to “kind of take advantage of not having someone like J.T. (Barrett) back there,” meaning taking advantage of not having a dual-threat.
“With Haskins, it is important to try to make him as uncomfortable as we can,” Taylor said. “Get someone in his face as often as you can, try to get the ball out earlier than he might want to, and our defensive line’s going to do a great job of that. Linebackers too.”
Once again, however, executing that game-plan has been an issue for all other opponents. Through four games, Haskins has been sacked just three times and hurried just four times.
But Penn State knows, if it wants to upset the No. 4 Buckeyes, it must stop or slow down Haskins. Ask Johnson, Franklin, Taylor — or sack leader Shareef Miller. The goal is simple; accomplishing it is not.
“It’ll make it hard to beat any team if you don’t get pressure on the quarterback, and especially Dwayne, just the way he has been putting up numbers these past couple games,” Miller said.
“So that’s going to be a real focal point for us — to get pressure on him.”