Ohio State-Penn State: Coaches preparing players for heavyweight fight

Just because Ohio State has not played a close game this season does not mean the head coach of the Buckeyes doesn’t know what they are like.

Although Ryan Day had only one example from this season — the third quarter against Wisconsin — of his team's back being against the wall, he had to look no farther than Ohio State's next opponent for two more.

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The last two Ohio State-Penn State games have been decided by a point apiece, and that only begins to tell the story.

The Buckeyes trailed by 12 points with eight minutes to go last season before rallying to win 27-26.

After a 47-yard touchdown pass from Dwayne Haskins to Binjimen Victor, Ohio State drove 96 yards in eight plays for the winning score, a screen pass from Haskins to K.J. Hill that covered 24 yards.

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That left the crowd at Beaver Stadium stunned with 2:03 on the clock, but the Buckeyes’ comeback a year earlier was even less probable.

Penn State star running back Saquon Barkley scored twice early, including a 97-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff, as the second-ranked Nittany Lions bulit a 21-3 lead early in the second quarter.

Ohio State battled back to within eight points early in the third quarter, but a contested touchdown catch by DeAndre Thompkins put Penn State back up 15 points and created the distinct feeling it was just not the Buckeyes’ day.

Nobody told J.T. Barrett.

Ohio State’s record-setting quarterback threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, including a 16-yarder to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 to go, to bring the Buckeyes all the way back for a 39-38 victory.

Two Big Ten championship seasons would have laid in tatters midway through the season otherwise, but Ohio State snatched victory from the jaws of defeat both times.

In both cases, the coaching staff was challenged to stick to their plan despite adversity, something Day will stress this week as the Buckeyes prepare for what could be another nip and tuck affair.

“This is a very well-coached defense,” Day said. “The last couple years they have been really good on defense. So it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be give-and-take, and you can’t panic because we had so much success that when we hit a little bit of adversity we can’t start reeling, we just have to hang in there and keep swinging at it and we’ll crack it.”

That’s a challenge faced both by the players and the coaches, who spend all week trying to figure out how to attack the opponent then sometimes have to decide if they got it wrong or the plan just needs more time to come together.

“I feel like in the last couple years we felt like we had good stuff in — we just weren’t executing great,” Day said, noting early turnovers also hurt Ohio State in each game. “It was just some of those things that went on in that game and we just felt like we had the right stuff, we just had to hang in there. So we talked to our guys about that, even this week, we got to come out to a fast start. The first game, the opening kickoff return for a touchdown, we kind of put ourselves behind the eight ball in those games.”

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Meanwhile, in University Park, Pa., on Tuesday no one had to tell Day’s counterpart about the recent history of the series.

“If you go back all the way to 2014, they won the national championship, our first year, took them to double overtime if I remember correctly,” Penn State coach James Franklin said at his weekly press conference. “We’ve had a lot of competition with these guys. We’ve played them probably as well as anybody over that period of time. Obviously not good enough. We’ve got to take the next step.”

A year ago, he made an impassioned postgame speech about the need to tighten up and avoid mistakes if his team is going to finish the job against a team like Ohio State.

This week he is preaching the importance of “matching their confidence,” a phrase he used multiple times Tuesday.

“I think one of the worst things that people do is they play a really talented team or roster, and you play conservatively,” Franklin said. “You can’t do that. I mean, we’re going to have to go there, we’re going to have to match their confidence, and we’re going to have to match their play making. Matching their play making isn’t just taking shots down the field, things like that. You’re carrying the ball and they come up to make a tackle — they’ve made that tackle in the nine or 10 previous games — and you break that tackle and go for 40. That sends a message. You’ve made that tackle for 10 straight weeks, you didn’t make that tackle this week. You got to be able to match those things.”

The same goes for his pass protectors, who will have to contain Ohio State star Chase Young and a handful of talented ends who performed well in his absence the past two games.

“They bring a pressure that they’ve had a lot of success getting home, we’re able to slide and pick it up,” Franklin said. ‘Now take advantage of when they blitz, they’ve vacated a zone or left someone one-on-one, you got to capitalize on it. Same thing on defense.”

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Like Day, Franklin expects to see a healthy back-and-forth Saturday.

“That’s going to be my message to the team: They’re going to make plays, we got to match them,” Franklin said. “It needs to be one of those types of games, like a heavyweight fight. That guy delivers a blow, you counter. That’s what it’s going to need to be.”

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