The No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions (4-0) will take on the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0) in the first top-10 matchup in Beaver Stadium in 19 years at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Here are the five things you should keep an eye on.
Spectacle of the White Out
ESPN analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit called it “the best atmosphere year in and year out.” Urban Meyer said it was one of college football’s “top-5 stadiums to play in.” And Penn State safety Garrett Taylor might’ve summed it up best.
“The White Out just truly embodies the pageantry of college football and what makes everyone fall in love with college football,” he said. “You take a small college town like State College and out of nowhere I think it turns into the third-largest city in Pennsylvania overnight. ... It’s huge. It’s a huge advantage.”
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At least 107,000 fans have packed into Beaver Stadium at every White Out since 2005. Nearly 200 recruits are expected to be in attendance Saturday. And the noise has been measured as high as 111 decibels, so loud that safety organizations recommend staying in that environment for less than two minutes to avoid possible hearing damage.
Ears buzz. The bleachers shake. It’s an intimidating and hostile environment. The crowd could throw Ohio State’s quarterback for a loop, or it could impact communication along the offensive line. The White Out is unique to college football — and it’s impossible to miss.
Battle of the Heisman-contender QBs
Sure, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is the early front-runner. But both Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Penn State’s Trace McSorley are on the short list.
Based on online sportsbook Bovada, Haskins is the No. 2 favorite at 5-to-1 odds, and McSorley is tied for No. 5 at 16-to-1. (Some sportsbooks have McSorley has high as 25-to-1, which Herbstret said he’d be all over.) These are not only the two best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, they’re two of the top signal-callers in the nation.
Haskins’ numbers speak for themselves. He’s completing 75.7 percent of his passes, the second-best clip in the nation, and he’s thrown 16 touchdown passes — also the second-best rate in the country. McSorley hasn’t been to shabby, either. He has 14 total touchdowns (8 passing, 6 rushing) and has been an efficient dual threat, throwing for 764 yards and running for 235.
Both quarterbacks are surrounded by question marks in some way heading into this game, and both have a lot of upside. For Haskins, he’s never faced an environment quite like this. And neither Ohio State nor Penn State have faced a defense this season as good as the one it’ll see Saturday night. Are McSorley’s receivers done dropping passes? Can Haskins stay calm when he can’t hear in the huddle? We won’t know until the game kicks off.
Key battle in the trenches
With apologies to Haskins and McSorley, this could very well end up being the story of the game.
Ohio State is without defensive end Nick Bosa, but this is still an incredibly talented defensive line. And Penn State won’t be able to rest with Dre’mont Jones potentially sliding along the line and wreaking havoc in the backfield. What makes this even more interesting is how it’ll act as a measuring stick for Penn State’s offensive line — which is still somewhat of a mystery.
Penn State’s line is much improved from last season. (Right tackle Will Fries was just named to Pro Football Focus’ National Team of the Week.) This is easily the best line since James Franklin has gotten here ... but just how good is it? This is the group’s first big test this season.
On the flip side, the key to the Penn State defense is getting pressure on Haskins. And that has to start with the defensive line; Penn State can’t send extra rushers on every down. Haskins has been sacked just three times and has rarely been hurried. So will Michael Jordan and Isaiah Prince, who just ended a Tulane defender, help hold off Shareef Miller and Co.? Stay tuned; it’s worth watching.
Penn State loses an RB; Ohio State gains an RB
Ohio State running back Mike Weber suffered a foot injury against Tulane and didn’t play afterward, but Meyer said “he’s going to play” Saturday night. Penn State running back Mark Allen went down with an unspecified season-ending injury a week ago — which should mean more carries for true freshman Ricky Slade.
Neither Weber nor Allen may be the bell-cows — J.K. Dobbins splits carries with Weber, and Miles Sanders sees a significant majority, respectively — but they both play(ed) key roles. Allen was able to spell Sanders, and his blocking/receiving was good enough to keep defenses honest. Slade’s blocking needs some work, and he hasn’t caught a ball yet this season. Ball security has also been an issue.
For Weber, his return is huge. The one-two punch of him and Dobbins is the best in the Big Ten. The only question is just how close to 100 percent he actually is. The Nittany Lions have struggled at run defense and remaining gap accountable — an emphasis this week — so Weber may want to make defensive coordinator Brent Pry pop some Advil.
The addition of Weber and absence of Allen has the ability to change the face of this game.
Importance of special teams
This is the kind of game — which many are expecting to be close — that could be determined by special teams. (Look no further than the 2016 meeting for a reminder.) And there are a number of differences here.
In the return game, Penn State clearly has the advantage. In field goals, it’s Ohio State. And, in punting, it’s essentially a draw.
Penn State boasts two dynamic returners in K.J. Hamler (kickoffs) and DeAndre Thompkins (punts). Both have All-American potential. Hamler is ninth in the nation with an average of 31.5 yards per return, and Thompkins is eighth nationally with 19.9 yards per return and a touchdown. (Defensively, on returns, Penn State has allowed two onside kick recoveries and one touchdown.)
At field-goal kicker, Ohio State’s Sean Nuernberger has been around forever. He’s been on the team since 2014, he’s made 206 consecutive extra points, and he’s nailed 79.3 percent of his kicks since his sophomore season. Penn State’s situation? True freshman Jake Pinegar is 1-of-3.
At punter, Ohio State’s Drue Chrisman and Penn State’s Blake Gillikin are elite. Both boast strong legs, and both are pretty darn accurate. Ten of Chrisman’s 13 punts this season have been downed inside the 20, while six of Gillikin’s 13 have done the same.
There could be fireworks here Saturday night. Leave the bathroom breaks for the commercials; punts and kickoffs could prove to be incredibly important.