Ohio State, Penn State defenses going in different directions heading into showdown

COLUMBUS -- Ohio State and Penn State enter their game Saturday with defenses seemingly going in opposite directions.

The fifth-ranked Buckeyes allowed 128 yards at Indiana last week, by far a season low. The Hoosiers having to rely on their third- and fourth-string quarterbacks for much of the game certainly helped, but that continued a trend. After allowing over 500 yards in consecutive weeks against Oregon and Tulsa, Ohio State has not allowed more than 346 yards in any of its last four games despite subbing heavily late in all of them.

“Guys are producing and there is a lot of confidence there,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day, whose team has moved up to No. 18 in the nation in scoring defense (18.6 points per game) and 48th in total defense (350.3 yards per game). “The way we are preparing on a week-to-week basis with the defensive staff has been solid and efficient. There is a bigger challenge coming. The goal for them is to identify the challenges before they emerge, and there are always things to work on.”

Meanwhile, 20th-ranked Penn State allowed a season-high 395 yards in an upset loss to Illinois last week, a total that included 357 on the ground.

In their previous game, the Nittany Lions gave up only 305 total yards at Iowa, but the Hawkeyes managed to manufacture three scoring drives in the second half and scored 17 unanswered points to win 23-20. The week before that, PSU shut out Indiana.

At Ohio State, changes in personnel and scheme have been beneficial.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson has been adding depth each week with more and more of his veterans being able to return from nagging injuries.

Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Tyreke Smith and Taron Vincent all missed at least one game over the past month, but they are full-go now while freshmen J.T. Tuimolau, Jack Sawyer and Tyleik Williams remain part of the rotation.

Senior Jarron Cage was unavailable to start the season, but he has joined the rotation over the past month, too, to give the Buckeyes even more depth up front.

“They are starting to really show up,” Day said of the veterans. “The younger guys had to play and were forced into some roles so now there is real depth there. I think that room is coming around. You can see some energy there. You see them with good pad level and they are producing as well.

“It is a better challenge this week, but now you are seeing some progress.”

Schematically, the Buckeyes began playing more split-safety zone and matchup zone coverages in late September after opening the season playing almost exclusively man coverage with a single high safety.

“I think what they’re doing a really good job of is getting back to playing base defense, keeping it sound,” Penn State coach James Franklin said this week. “I don’t want use the term simple because I wouldn’t say it’s simple. They’re sound. Not trying to do too much and over-scheme you. They’re letting their players line up and be safe, and they’re always sound in how they adjust and they’re allowing their players to play fast and aggressive and make plays.”

Franklin’s team is still ranked No. 6 nationally in scoring defense at 14.7 points per game but has dropped to 26th in total defense (324.4 yards per game).

The Nittany Lions are on the other side of the injury coin.

They lost standout tackle PJ Mustipher during the Iowa game, and he was greatly missed last week as Illinois dominated PSU up front.

“Whenever you lose a starter, it has an impact and the next guy needs to step up,” said Penn State coach James Franklin, who noted his team had already lost projected starter Adisa Isaac before the season began. “There will be more reps that are asked of guys that were in backup roles before that, so Zuriah Fisher’s development is going to continue to be important for us. And Smith Vilbert, who is playing — we hope his rep count will continue to grow as he gains confidence and experience.

“We have typically been five deep at D-tackle, and we’ve typically been five deep at defensive end, and that has not been the case this year with injuries — especially when you lose multiple starters like we talked about with PJ Mustipher and Adisa Isaac.”

He said Illinois, in its first year under run-game guru head coach Bret Bielema, did some things the Nittany Lions had not prepared for last week and that hurt them.

“We’ve done a really good job stopping the run not only this year but historically,” Franklin said. “They had a nice little wrinkle that caused us some challenges, no doubt about it. We were able to make some adjustments as the game went on. Obviously, we have had some thorough discussions since and some things that obviously you look back after the fact and say, we would like to have done this or could have done this.

But, again, at the end of the day, in college football we held them to 10 points. That should have been enough to win the game.”


Penn State at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., ABC, 1410

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