Three words stared at the Ohio State Buckeyes from the giant TV screen looming above the Woody Hayes Athletic Center turf on Tuesday: “Beat Penn State.”
Coach Urban Meyer loves themes and slogans. Sometimes, the simple sentences work. Beat No. 2 Penn State (7-0, 4-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium, and the No. 6 Buckeyes (6-1, 4-0) thrust themselves back into the playoff picture and make themselves the favorite in the Big Ten East Division at the same time.
While stopping — or at least containing — Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, is the biggest key for the Buckeyes, they also have to worry about quarterback Trace McSorley. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game (268.4). He can also hurt the Buckeyes with his legs. He has seven rushing touchdowns.
“Obviously, we know he’s a scrambler,” Ohio State defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle said. “He likes to run a lot. We know we have to hit him.”
McSorley, a redshirt junior in his second season as a starter, beat the Buckeyes 24-21 in his first try last season but did not put up good numbers. He completed 8 of 23 passes for 154 yards with one touchdown. He rushed 19 times for 63 yards and a score.
McSorley lifted Penn State to a 42-13 victory over Michigan on Saturday, completing 17 of 26 passes for 282 yards with a touchdown and interception. He rushed for 76 yards on 11 carries and scored three touchdowns.
“The thing that, a lot like our quarterback, separates him is his competitive spirit is off the charts,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “I really got to watch him on TV last week. I really haven’t done that before. That one play in particular, going to his left in the red zone where he scored, he made a couple of people miss. He lunged. He’s not the biggest guy (6-foot, 195 pounds), but he competes so hard. That’s what makes J.T. Barrett so special and Alex Smith and Tim Tebow. They’re all different sizes and shapes and forms yet the common trait of winners is competitive spirit.”
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This will be the biggest test for Ohio State’s defense since the 31-16 loss to Oklahoma and its star quarterback Baker Mayfield. Ohio State’s secondary gets a chance to show the gains it has made in a five-game winning streak are real.
“I believe in our players,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “I think we have really fine players, and they’re trying their guts out to get ready for this game. They’ve been doing that. That’s why you play the games. That’s the challenge. That’s exciting.”
Penn State at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., FOX, 1410