Tonight marks the biggest game on Penn State’s calendar this regular season, and not just because “it’s the one this week,” as coach James Franklin would say.
A primetime showdown with the fourth ranked Ohio State Buckeyes is certain to have massive implications in the race for both the Big Ten East and the College Football Playoff. Tensions will be high in a sold-out Beaver Stadium, as Penn State fans will partake in the annual Whiteout game, only adding to the ruckus atmosphere.
The Nittany Lions will certainly have their hands full with one of the most complete teams college football has to offer. They will need to succeed in every aspect of the game to win a contest which is sure to be one for the ages.
In the past two matchups between Penn State and Ohio State, special teams has been pivotal to momentum, and the overall outcome between the two powerhouse programs.
Two seasons ago, Marcus Allen’s blocked field goal, returned for a touchdown by Grant Haley, gave the Nittany Lions the late lead in what proved to be a huge upset leading Penn State to a Big Ten title.
Last season, huge kickoff returns by Saquon Barkley and Koa Farmer helped Penn State jump on top early, but it was Ohio State that had the last laugh, blocking a punt that lead to a legendary comeback by Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes.
This season, Penn State will need another one of those “spark” plays to get the crowd lively and use the home field environment to their advantage. The return game may be an ideal spot to win the special teams battle. Both return men, redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler and graduate student DeAndre Thompkins, have been prone to clutch, explosive returns when their team needed them to stay in a game, or finish off an opponent.
Need I further remind Nittany Lion fans how last season’s matchup with Ohio State ended? The change to a zone coverage by Penn State was easily thwarted by then-Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who was a perfect 13-for-13 in the fourth quarter, with three touchdown passes en route to a 39-38 victory.
With that said, the secondary has been an area of concern for the Nittany Lions this season. Senior corner back Amani Oruwariye is an experienced player who will go toe-to-toe with his matchups all night, but the likes of graduate Nick Scott and sophomore Lamont Wade will need to step up to the occasion at safety to help the rest of the inexperienced, but talented Penn State defense.
Any potential pass rush would also go a long way for defensive coordinator Brent Pry and company. Sophomore Dwayne Haskins is now taking the snaps for the Buckeyes, and he lacks the mobility of his predecessor Barrett. Making the pro-style QB uncomfortable in the pocket will certainly help the Penn State secondary avoid getting burnt on huge plays in the passing game.
Penn State has been no slouch on this side of the ball. They have averaged an NCAA-best 55.5 points per game thus far. However, this week they face their toughest challenge yet with a much faster, more athletic Ohio State defense taking the field.
In the passing attack, a downfield threat will be critical. Ohio State’s defense has been prone to letting up the occasional explosive play this season, especially against TCU two weeks ago. With senior quarterback Trace McSorley being a huge fan of throwing the deep ball, this seems to be an advantage for the Nittany Lions. However, Penn State has lacked its traditional deep man among the receivers this season.
A wide receiver with a big frame to go up and win the 50/50 balls has been essential to Penn State’s success in recent seasons. A role filled by the likes of Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton has yet to be filled. With senior Juwan Johnson putting a more consistent performance together last week against Illinois, look for him to potentially take this role. DeAndre Thompkins is also an option.
A player who has had much success this season, who might find himself in for a tough battle all night is K.J. Hamler. A slot receiver who has found himself in the thick of Penn State’s game plan thus far, lacks the size to compete physically and go up to win balls against the Buckeyes.
What Hamler lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, but safeties such as Jordan Fuller and Isaiah Pryor will be able to stick with the Penn State receiver unlike anything he has seen before. Look for them to take the game to Hamler and try to rattle him early. It will be interesting to see how the true freshman responds to the adversity on the big stage.
One way to get Hamler more touches might be on the jet sweep. A play which led to a 32-yard touchdown run earlier this season against Pittsburgh sets Hamler into motion before McSorley hands the ball off to him in the backfield. The absence of the Buckeyes’ junior defensive end Nick Bosa may allow for greater rushing success around the edges, and this play, if not ran too often, is a great way to give one of Penn State’s best athletes more looks.
The Bosa injury will also grant more open spaces in between the tackles. The explosiveness of junior running back Miles Sanders has become more prominent as the weeks have gone on, and the unfortunate injury to Mark Allen means Sanders will likely be given a heavier workload from here on. After becoming the first Penn State back to record 200 rushing yards in a game since 2002, expect another dependable performance from number 24 to keep the balance in the offense.
Trace McSorley will obviously have to make big plays with his arm for the Nittany Lions to be victorious, but his mobility is equally as important. TCU’s sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson had moderate success against the Buckeye’s defense for most of the game due to his ability to make and extend plays with his legs. McSorley will have to do the same against a violent Ohio State pass rush.
Do not be surprised if the “lion,” Tommy Stevens, is let out of his cage this week either. Stevens was cleared just before the Illinois game, and will be itching to make his first big impact of the season.
All in all, the Nittany Lions have a big task ahead of them tonight, but have displayed the ability under James Franklin, in the Whiteout, to be capable of beating any Big Ten foe, including Ohio State.
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