COLUMBUS, OH (CBS 3)- Penn State’s hopes of a playoff berth took a huge hit with their loss to Minnesota two weeks ago. But there is still a chance, albeit a slight one, that the Nittany Lions could recover. The problem is that arguably the best team in the country stands in their way, and they have to go on the road to meet them.
This Saturday, James Franklin’s squad, currently ranked #8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, heads to Columbus, Ohio for a matchup with the #2 Ohio State Buckeyes. It is a game that fans have had circled on the calendar since the beginning of the season knowing that the road to a Big Ten title and possible playoff berth runs through the Buckeyes.
Some of the shine was knocked off the matchup by Penn State’s 31-26 loss to Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium two weeks ago. But the game is still a battle of top-10 teams and one that quarterback Sean Clifford told The Athletic is a “measuring stick” for the Nittany Lions development as a program.
At the moment, Vegas views the Nittany Lions as coming up quite a bit short of that measuring stick. The Buckeyes enter the game as 18-point favorites on their home turf. The home team always gets a bump when it comes to the line, but an 18-point spread would indicate that the folks in Sin City believe that this game won’t be close.
It’s easy to understand why. Penn State has had consecutive shaky outings, first, the loss to Minnesota, then in last week’s 34-27 win over Indiana at home. In both games, a defense that had been rock-solid all year has given up explosive passing plays and generally looked out of sorts.
“The concerning part is, a lot of times, it hasn’t really been a contested pass. There have been guys getting open, that is on the safeties and cornerbacks,” said Tyler Donohue, a staff writer for Lions247, Fight on State. “There has been a lack of a defensive pass rush. A lot of us viewed that as a strong suit for the Nittany Lions. It just has not been the case the last couple of weeks, and it’s put them in a tough spot.”
Against the Gophers and Hoosiers, Penn State managed just three total sacks while allowing Tanner Morgan and Peyton Ramsey to throw for a combined 710 yards and four touchdowns. That doesn’t bode well against an Ohio State offense that has been humming under the direction of sophomore quarterback Justin Fields. The Buckeyes are tops in the nation in scoring offense at 51.5 points per game, with Fields sporting an absurd 31-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That dominance leads CBS Sports Network play-by-play man Rich Waltz to say the Buckeyes “certainly look above and beyond anything right now. Eye test, paper, they check all of the boxes.”
While Fields can certainly exploit the Penn State defense through the air, he has been extremely effective with his legs as well, representing a dual-threat that Donohue notes Penn State has not faced this season. Even if the Nittany Lions can slow Fields, the Buckeyes still have 1,200-yard rusher J.K. Dobbins in the backfield to give linebackers nightmares. All of those factors combine to lead Donohue to believe that the defense’s play will be the real key in this game.
“If this defense is not able to take a step forward and shake off some of the issues it has had, I just don’t see the Penn State offense being able to counter some of the big blows Ohio State can deliver,” said Donohue. “If we don’t see Penn State deliver perhaps its best performance of the season on defense, certainly of the past few weeks, then this is going to maybe be a game in which it could get out of hand.”
The main reason for the pessimistic view of the Penn State offense is the injury status of wide receiver K.J. Hamler. The junior has been far and away the Nittany Lions biggest offensive threat this season, averaging 17.2 yards per catch for over 700 yards and eight touchdowns. Hamler is dealing with an injury sustained during last week’s game against Indiana, and his status for Saturday is uncertain.
If he is unable to go, that leaves a depleted arsenal of weapons for quarterback Sean Clifford to work with.
“It’s a tremendous concern for Penn State. The depth has not developed in the way that they thought it would at receiver,” said Donohue.
Sophomore Jahan Dotson has been a consistent second option at receiver (22 catches 412 yards 3 TDs) but he has been the lone receiver outside of Hamler to make a big impact. With Dotson and tight end Pat Freiermuth likely to get the lion’s share of the attention from the Buckeyes defense sans Hamler, Donohue believes offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne could turn to the running game.
“You may see this team make more of a concerted effort to establish its ground game and lean on its rushing attack more than we have seen in the past,” said Donohue. “If there is no KJ Hamler, you may see them try to establish the run in a way they haven’t done over the first ten games of the year.”
The good news on that front is it appears freshman back Noah Cain could return after missing the last two games with a leg injury. Combined with Journey Brown (86 carries 521 yards 6 TDs), that could form a potent 1-2 punch in the backfield. But, it will be tough sledding against an Ohio State defense that has allowed just 90.4 yards per game and 2.51 yards per carry this season.
As you can tell, it’s difficult to find a matchup advantage on paper for Penn State in this game. The only possible one that Donohue sees? Ohio State has yet to play a close game this season.
“How will they respond if they are pretty far into the second half and it is a tie game or trailing? It is not something they have had to respond to so far. They have a first-year starting quarterback and a first-year head coach,” said Donohue. “They haven’t had the kind of walking-on-egg-shells moment where one mistake can doom you.”
With that said, both Waltz and Donohue believe that Ohio State will come out on top when all is said and done. Though the last two years’ matchups have been decided by one point, it’s tough to see it being that close.
Penn State and Ohio State kick off from Columbus at 12 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday.