7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Ohio State -12.5, Over/Under: 62.5
Big Ten giants clash tonight in Happy Valley, as the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Beaver Stadium to battle the No. 18 Penn State Nittany Lions in what has been billed as the most significant matchup of the conference schedule. Ever since the Big Ten announced their return to play, consisting of a league-exclusive schedule, the spectators circled this particular matchup, with the victor billed to be the conference’s representative in the College Football Playoff. However, following the events of Opening Weekend, only one of these teams appears to have held up their end of the bargain, and that is unsurprisingly Ohio State (1-0,1-0 in Big Ten). Now embarking on his second full season since succeeding Urban Meyer in Columbus, Ryan Day has maintained the lofty standard for the Buckeyes, coming off a 13-1 campaign which culminated in their third trip to the Playoff. With the other conferences returning to play far sooner, there were plenty of critics lamenting any potential absence of Ohio State, who along with Clemson and Alabama were expected to be one of the few true elite teams coming into 2020, with some even going so far as to question the legitimacy of this year’s Playoff if the Scarlet & Gray would indeed fail to participate. Fortunately, they have been able to return to action with enough time make an impression on the Polls, which is precisely what they did last weekend.
Any concerns over any rust that may have accumulated upon the Buckeyes were put to rest in their 52-17 drubbing of Nebraska at Ohio Stadium on Saturday. The Cornhuskers would strike first, with their Quarterback, Arian Martinez, rushing ten yards into the End Zone to hand the visitors a surprising 7-0 lead barely two minutes into the contest. However, the hosts would hit paydirt on back-to-back drives to retake the lead, while Nebraska proved resilient enough to square things away midway through the Second Quarter. From that point on, it was Ohio State all the way, outscoring their opponent 38-3, comfortably covering that 27-point spread in the process. The story of the day was how in synch the Offense looked, as Day’s charges racked up a total of 491 yards on twenty-eight first downs, doing so in the most balanced of fashions, with 276 yards coming through the air and another 215 on the ground. Junior Quarterback, Justin Fields (95.2%, 276 YDS, 13.1 Y/A, 2 TD, 0 INT, 237.1 RATE), was damn near perfect in his 2020 debut, completing all but one of his twenty-one passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another fifty-four yards and a score on fifteen carries. It was an excellent showing for the Heisman candidate, determined to make this year’s race for the prestigious award a bonafide competition. The former Georgia transfer was prolific last season, accounting for 3,757 total yards and a whopping FIFTY-ONE touchdowns in 2019 despite being slowed towards the end of the campaign due to a nagging knee injury. Look for him to play an even larger role in the rushing attack as Day will utilize him in a triumvirate alongside Tailbacks, Master Teague (12 CAR, 41 YDS, 3.4 Y/A, 1 TD) and Trey Sermon (11 CAR, 48 YDS, 4.4 Y/A, 0 TD), effectively replacing J.K Dobbins, who led the Buckeyes in rushing in each of the last three years, including a staggering 2,003 yards and twenty-one touchdowns in 2019. Teague has performed well when he been given the chance, averaging a healthy 5.8 yards per carry with four scores last year, while Sermon arrives as a transfer from Oklahoma, rushing for 2,076 yards and twenty-two touchdowns from 2017 to 2019 in Norman. Receivers, Chis Olave (6 REC, 104 YDS, 17.3 Y/R, 0 TD) and Garrett Wilson (7 REC, 129 YDS, 18.4 Y/R, 1 TD) combined for thirteen receptions, 233 yards and a touchdown, while Freshman, Jaxon Smith-Njigba (2 REC, 5 YDS, 2.5 Y/R, 1 TD) hauled in one of the prettiest touchdowns dragging his toe in the back of the End Zone following an absolute dime from Fields, which put the game well out of reach in the final stanza. Even with the likes of K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, and the aforementioned Dobbins moving on to competing on Sundays, this Offense still appears to be loaded. Shocking, we know…
Now if we’re going to really nitpick, and we will because the bar is set unbelievably high for the Buckeyes, it’s that their Defense was a bit suspect in Saturday’s victory over the ‘Huskers. Mobile Quarterbacks have managed to find success against this Defense in years past, and Nebraska presented some challenges for Ohio State. However, is this simply a case of working off some rust in the Season Opener, or has the performance laid a potential blueprint for exploiting their weaknesses? Whichever notion you subscribe to, it’s clear that the host’s run defense was subpar, allowing 210 yards on thirty-six carries, which equates to 5.8 yards per carry, with opposing Quarterbacks, Luke McCaffrey and the aforementioned Martinez, rushing for 165 yards and a score on twenty-two carries. Granted, the visitors also did many things to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot, turning the football over on two occasions, including a fumble that was returned fifty-five yards for a score courtesy of Cornerback, Sevyn Banks (1 TKL, 1 FR, 1 TD), and penalized eight times for a loss of ninety yards. Had Scott Frost’s charges managed to play a clean game, who knows how this one would have turned out. As is typically the case, this unit lost a wealth of talent to the NFL over the Offseason, with seven starters from last year’s group hearing their name called in the 2020 NFL Draft, including four members of the front seven, most notable of which was No. Two Overall Pick, Chase Young.
Meanwhile, coming into 2020 Ohio State’s principal antagonist within the Big Ten’s East Division was expected to be Penn State (0-1, 0-1 in Big Ten), though we may have to rethink that rhetoric following last weekend’s turn of events. Though they hadn’t beaten the Buckeyes since 2016, the Nittany Lions have played them tough as nails in recent meetings with their last four encounters coming by a combined sixteen points. Now in his seventh season in Happy Valley, James Franklin has done an excellent job of restoring the program to the ranks of the country’s top tier, even if they’ve yet to reach that elite realm that the fanbase so desperately yearns to be in. Since arriving in 2014, the 48-year old has gone 56-24 (.700) with three 11-win campaigns to his ledger over the past four years, highlighted by a Big Ten Championship in 2016 and an appearance in the 2017 Rose Bowl. However, Penn State has yet to level up and ascend to the Playoff, and unless something truly chaotic happens over the next seven weeks it’s going to be rather difficult envisioning them doing so this season, particularly after last Saturday’s showing at Indiana, which of course puts them on a potential path to start 0-2, which would be the first time that has happened since 2012, immediately succeeding the long reign of the departed Joe Paterno.
One of the reasons that big things were expected out of Penn State in 2020 is that last season was supposed to be their rebuilding period, in which they successfully replaced a number of key contributors on the offensive side of the football. Tailback, Journey Brown, looked to have taken the baton passed to him by prolific rushers, Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, while the transition from Trace McSorley to Sean Clifford (68.6%, 238 YDS, 6.8 Y/A, 3 TD, 2 INT, 142.5 RATE) at Quarterback appeared to be painless one. Unfortunately, with Brown likely to miss the entire season with an undisclosed injury, Clifford is going to have to assume an even larger role in the running game, or at least until Franklin can identify a Tailback to step up and assume the primary responsibilities in the Backfield. If last weekend’s inexplicable 36-35 loss at Indiana was any indication, then he’s going to have to keep looking; despite rushing for a total of 250 yards as a team, 119 of that total came courtesy of Clifford, who made the most of his legs in the loss, with the rest of the Lions’ Backfield managing just 131 yards on thirty-five carries, which parlays to an unimpressive 3.7 yards per rush. Sophomore, Devyn Ford (20 CAR, 69 YDS, 3.5 Y/A, 1 TD), received the majority of the carries, totaling sixty-nine yards and a score on twenty attempts (3.5 Y/A), but most of that production came in the Second Half. With that said, this defeat was more of a calamity of errors than anything else, with the visitors shooting themselves in the proverbial foot repeatedly throughout the affair; after taking an early 7-0 lead, Penn State seventeen unanswered points, while committing three turnovers, and succumbing to a number of mistakes on Special Teams. To their credit, Clifford would eventually give them the lead following a 35-yard jaunt into the End Zone at the climax of the Third Quarter and 60-yard bomb to Receiver, Jahan Dotson (4 REC, 94 YDS, 23.5 Y/R, 1 TD), on the ensuing possession, but the Hoosiers pushed the contest to Overtime on the strength of a too-close to overturn two-point conversion. After adding another seven via Clifford’s touchdown pass to Parker Washington (2 REC, 12 YDS, 6.0 Y/R, 1 TD), Indiana would walk off with a victory scoring a touchdown coupled with another two-point conversion for their first triumph over a Top-10 opponent in thirty-three years. In the end, the numbers were overwhelmingly in Penn State’s favor, outgaining the hosts 488-211, outrushing them 250-41, but three costly turnovers and ten penalties for a loss of 100 yards indeed proved too much to overcome for the Nittany Lions, who are no doubt left scratching their heads. Making matters worse, Franklin lost another Tailback to injury, with Sophomore, Noah Cain (3 CAR, 13 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 0 TD), joining Brown with a leg injury that will end his campaign altogether.
So instead of answering “how can we join the nation’s elite?”, the question now becomes “how can we avoid an 0-2 start?”, as Penn State must regroup in short order before welcoming Ohio State to Beaver Stadium tonight. First and foremost, there is no way they can expect to be in this contest if they are to commit the same mistakes that they did against the Hoosiers. As we stated earlier, Nebraska moved the football on the ground, but were ultimately done in by turnovers and penalties. Clifford has the athletic traits to exploit many of the weaknesses that the ‘Huskers’ Quarterbacks revealed, which could go a long way towards keeping the Buckeyes’ explosive Offense off the field. When the Junior made his first appearance against them last season, a 28-17 loss at the Horseshoe in Columbus, he endured arguably his toughest day as the Starting Quarterback, completing just 10-of-17 passes for seventy-one yards before ultimately being replaced by Will Levis, who wouldn’t fair much better. The more telling figure was that of zero, for that’s how many rushing yards he ended the game with despite rushing six times. The Defense will also have to do it’s best to get the aforementioned Fields & Co off the field. It was bend but don’t break in 2019, with the visiting Lions yielding 417 total yards, but forcing three turnovers, though that may unrealistic to think that they’ll muster a similar performance after having to replace five starters from that unit; All-American Linebacker, Micah Parsons, was one of the country’s most notable opt-outs, with the Junior choosing to prepare for the NFL Draft rather than opt back into this abridged campaign.