Penn State Football

Penn State vs. Ohio State: Who has the edge?

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OFFENSIVE LINE

Miles Dieffenbach is making good progress in his recovery from spring knee surgery but will be worked back in the lineup gradually. For now, Penn State’s front five has to improve without their most experienced player. Without Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions are one of nine FBS teams out of 128 that have rushed for less than 600 yards this season. Ohio State also had to replace four starters, but they have done well. The Buckeyes have a well-balanced attack, are averaging 259 yards per game and left tackle Taylor Decker is leading them nicely. Advantage: Ohio State

QUARTERBACKS

J.T. Barrett is the Big Ten’s breakout star thus far in a season he was never supposed to play. He’s been brilliant over the last four games, especially as he’s been asked to do more. He’s perfect for Meyer’s read-option based running game and has good instincts. Meanwhile, his passing has improved. He’s completing 65 percent of his passes so far and 72 percent in the last four games. He’s been careful with the ball and hasn’t thrown a pick in 107 attempts. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg hasn’t had the time or space to progress and has forced passes that have resulted in interceptions. He’s capable of the big throw and will fit passes through tighter windows than Barrett will. Hackenberg has been clutch in big games under the lights but Barrett is playing out of his mind right now. Advantage: Ohio State

RUNNING BACKS

This has to be Penn State’s most confounding position group, mostly due to the lack of help they’ve gotten up front. Bill Belton has been the Nittany Lions’ most consistent back in all areas but hasn’t been utilized enough in the short passing game. Akeel Lynch may be the best pure runner. Lynch has quick feet and runs with a heavy stride at the same time. Penn State could benefit from a quicker, north-south runner on early running downs but Lynch hasn’t been involved until late. Ezekiel Elliott leads Ohio State with 531 yards on 91 carries and has a nice combination of size and athleticism at 6-feet, 225-pounds. He runs through bad tackles easily and is a solid receiver. J.T. Barrett is a big contributor in the running game for the Buckeyes and turns corners at a deceivingly quick pace. Advantage: Push

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Penn State’s was limited with Geno Lewis out of the lineup for big portions of the Michigan game and getting Lewis back on track will be a focus. When both he and DaeSean Hamilton are making big plays, it creates headaches for the opposing secondary. Penn State’s tight ends have caught 21 percent of Christian Hackenberg’s completions in Big Ten games but have yet to amass more than 32 yards in a them. Ohio State sophomore Michael Thomas leads his team with 377 yards on 21 catches with five touchdowns. H-back Dontre Wilson and Biletnikoff Award watchlister Devin Smith are also frequent and talented targets for Barrett. Tight end Jeff Heuerman blocks well and is a deceivingly good athlete. He gets downfield for big gains quick. Advantage: Push

DEFENSIVE LINE

There are a lot of really good players on both sides, which should make watching each defensive front fun. Sophomore Joey Bosa leads Ohio State with 51/2 sacks and is a heavy assignment for any blocker — or blockers. Penn State’s Deion Barnes and Anthony Zettel have combined for six sacks and have held their ends well. Both teams have defensive tackles that are effective. Zettel has been the biggest game-changer from the inside on either team and Austin Johnson has helped Penn State’s No. 1 rushing defense. Michael Bennett is on multiple award watch lists and demands a lot of attention inside for the Buckeyes. Penn State’s Parker Cothren and Tyrone Smith have added great depth behind the first-teamers along with Tarow Barney, who’s got two sacks despite lower snap counts. Advantage: Penn State

LINEBACKERS

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop referred to Mike Hull as the “straw that stirs the drink” and he’s got a great point. Hull has been all over the field for the Nittany Lions, often leading a group of helmets to the ball simultaneously in a swarming, well-communicated defense. Hull is the primary communicator but Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman have both played well on either side of him. Hull has 64 tackles and is tied for 39th in the country, with 35 players ahead of him having played one or two more games. Joshua Perry has played all three linebacker spots for the Buckeyes and is now playing the weakside where Ryan Shazier starred. He’s their leading tackler with 45. Curtis Grant plays in the middle with freshman Darron Lee on the other side. Grant is a veteran, dependable player for Ohio State and plays strong in coverage. He has two interceptions this season and four breakups. Sophomore Raekwon McMillan rotates in for Ohio State and is a player to watch. Advantage: Penn State

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Although the Buckeyes are fairly young with three underclassman and senior Doran Grant in the secondary, they’ve played well. Ohio State has the 16th-ranked passing defense and starters — corners Eli Apple and Grant and safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell — have combined for six of the Buckeyes’ 10 picks. Penn State’s secondary has played well but a few mistakes, like a missed interception against Michigan, have held them back recently. Still, the Nittany Lions have given up just three passing touchdowns all season. Penn State’s starters have seven interceptions but five came in one game (vs. Rutgers). This is a group capable of taking the ball away more, like the Buckeyes do. Advantage: Ohio State

SPECIAL TEAMS

Penn State’s punt team has been a mess and poor field position has been the result. Meanwhile, Ohio State has only had to punt 13 times this season. Despite the inaction, Cameron Johnston is doing well, averaging 44 yards per punt. The Buckeyes use Kyle Clinton for kickoffs and Sean Nuemberger for field goals. Nuemberger is 6-for-9 with a long of 46 on the season. Sam Ficken has doubled that output and is 12-for-14 with two attempts blocked. His season long is from 42 yards. But field position is always critical and Ohio State has been able to flip and maintain it with strong punting and a punt return team that has brought back 21 punts for 279 yards. Advantage: Ohio State

INTANGIBLES

Bye weeks are supposed to help but that hasn’t been the case for Penn State. The Nittany Lions haven’t won coming off an idle weekend since Oct. 20, 2012. In an odd scheduling quirk, the Buckeyes have played just one true road game — at Maryland — earlier this month. Eight weeks into the season, a sold-out, white-out crowd could intimidate a mostly young Ohio State team. Or the Buckeyes could get rolling quick, like they have done, and quiet it quickly. Penn State players will be buoyed by it but fans could get restless. Penn State hasn’t lost three-straight games in a regular season since 2004 when they lost six straight. Advantage: Penn State

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