Ohio State kicks off the defining stretch of the season Saturday playing host to Penn State.
The No. 9 Nittany Lions lost their bid for a perfect season two weeks ago at Minnesota but bounced back with a tight win over Indiana, and they still control their destiny in the Big Ten East.
All coach James Franklin’s team has to do is beat No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday and the Nittany Lions will be at worst co-champions of the Big Ten East. A win against Rutgers the following week (or an Ohio State loss at Michigan) would send the Nittany Lions to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
Ohio State will return to the Circle City for a third straight year if the Buckeyes win Saturday.
Here are seven things to know about the game this week and the series:
1. Penn State is by far the best team Ohio State has faced.
We’ve written this multiple times this season, but this time we mean it.
(It might even remain true until late December, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)
As far as traditional stats, the Nittany Lions are No. 7 in the nation in points allowed per game (13.5) and 15th in points scored per game (36.8).
Defensively, Penn State is fourth in rushing (75.9 yards per game) and 17th in total yards (316.2).
On the flip side, the Lions are only 50th in total offense (426.6 yards per game), including 53rd in rushing (173.1) and 46th in passing (253.5) and 31st in passing efficiency.
They are 30th in the nation in pass efficiency defense but only 84th in passing yards allowed per game (240.3).
The defense has been good on third downs (25th) and bad in the red zone (tied for 92nd).
The defense is good in the red zone (28th) and average on third down (45th).
2. Advanced stats like them a lot.
The PSU offense is No. 11 in SP+ and 12th on defense and ninth in special teams.
Ohio State has topped the SP+ rankings for a few weeks and is No. 1 on defense, No. 4 on offense and 17th in special teams.
According to FootballOutsiders.com, Penn State has a sub-par offensive line overall (78th in adjusted line yards, which attempt to measure how effective blocking is independent of running back performance), but the unit has been good in short-yardage and up and down in pass protection.
The OSU offensive line is the opposite, dominating overall (No. 2 in adjusted line yards) but struggled in pass protection both on standard downs (83rd in sack rate) and passing downs (104th).
The Penn State defensive line is among the best in the nation (fifth in adjusted line yards) but has struggled to get to the quarterback on standard downs (82nd).
Ohio State’s defensive line is No. 2 in the latter category, No. 1 on passing downs and No. 4 overall.
3. Penn State’s best player was injured last week.
KJ Hamler left the Nittany Lions’ 34-27 win over Indiana with an injury early, but Franklin said afterward they are optimistic he will return this week.
A junior receiver who torched Ohio State last season, Hamler is 23rd in the nation and fourth in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards. He is also fourth in the Big Ten in combined kick returns, fifth in punt return average, fourth in receiving yards and fifth in both receptions per game (4.6) and receiving yards per game (79.1).
4. The Nittany Lions quarterback is from Ohio.
Sean Clifford was a 247Sports Composite four-star prospect at Cincinnati St. Xavier in the class of 2017. He was the No. 7 prospect in Ohio, the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the country and led the Bombers to the state championship as a senior.
In his first season as a starter at Penn State, the 6-foot-2, 216-pound third-year sophomore is fifth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and second in passing yards (245.0 per game), passing touchdowns (22) and points responsible (164).
Like predecessor Trace McSorley — who also torched Ohio State last season — Clifford is a dual-threat quarterback. He has 374 yards on the ground, five rushing touchdowns and leads the Big Ten in total offense (282.4 yards per game).
5. Clifford is one of six players from Ohio on the Penn State roster.
He is joined by defensive tackles Aeneas Hawkins (Cincinnati Moeller) and Antonio Shelton (Westerville North), offensive linemen Juice Scruggs (Ashtabula via Cathedral Prep in Pennsylvania) and Mike Miranda (Stow-Munroe Falls) and long snapper Chris Stoll (Columbus DeSales).
Shelton and Stoll are starters while Miranda is listed No. 2 at center and both guards.
Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class, ranked No. 3 in the Big Ten and 13th nationally by 247Sports, has one Ohioan — three-star Lima Senior defensive end Brandon Taylor.
6. Justin Fields was once committed to Penn State.
Ohio State’s current starting quarterback, who leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency, passing touchdowns and points responsible for, is a transfer from Georgia. Before the Georgia native signed with the Bulldogs as the No. 2 player in the country, he was a Penn State commit as an under-the-radar prospect.
“I think Coach Franklin is a good coach,” Fields told reporters after the Buckeyes beat Rutgers on Saturday.
After noting he had a good relationship with former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead — who eventually left to become head coach at Mississippi State — Fields said he has maintained contact with some Penn State players.
“They’re all great guys over there,” he said.
7. Ohio State leads the all-time series 20-14.
Including a 38-14 win in 2010 that was vacated due to NCAA sanctions, the Buckeyes have won eight of the last 10 against the Nittany Lions and five of the last six.
Since Penn State began Big Ten play in 1993, Ohio State is 18-8 against the Nittany Lions.
The last two games were decided by one point apiece, and both featured Ohio State rallying from double-digit deficits in the second half.
Four of the last five games have been decided by a touchdown or less with the exception being a 38-10 Ohio State win in 2015.
After taking on Penn State, Ohio State will finish the regular season at Michigan on Nov. 30.
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