This Week in Ohio State Football: Will the real Ohio State and Penn State teams please stand up?

Credit: Barry Reeger

Credit: Barry Reeger

There is so much to consider with the Buckeyes’ getting ready to play host to Penn State, I had a hard time knowing where to begin this week.

I’ve settled on the idea Ohio State-Penn State 2023 might be the biggest possible pairing of unknowns halfway through a season.

Here’s why:

1. On one hand, Penn State has played nobody that could come close to challenging its defense.

Most of the Nittany Lions’ opponents couldn’t challenge anyone else, either.

At No. 83, West Virginia is the top-ranked scoring offense Penn State has faced, and Massachusetts is best in yards per game at No. 65.

Advanced stats aren’t much better as WVU is No. 53 in offensive SP+ (which measures efficiency and explosiveness while adjusting for opponent), but no one else is better than 80, and Iowa, Northwestern and UMass are all 110 or worse.

2. Ohio State also feels like something of an unknown, but for a completely different reason.

We’ve seen the Buckeyes scuffle with opponents good (Notre Dame) and bad (Indiana) while putting together their 6-0 record.

In some respects, coach Ryan Day’s team is a victim of its own success, of course.

Seeing the Buckeyes bleed a little seems to have different effects on different people, including the unnamed coaches who provided a fairly strange scouting report for The Athletic and mostly seemed to think Penn State will win Saturday.

Some of the doubts about the Buckeyes might turn out to be well-founded, and this shapes up as a massive test for the much-maligned offensive line.

Sometimes knowing what you need to fix is valuable, too, as we saw last Saturday when the Buckeyes found some success after tweaking their run game strategy (more below).

3. Penn State’s offensive statistics are very curious.

The Nittany Lions have always had a good offense under head coach James Franklin.

This has the makings of one of the best from a personnel standpoint, but so far it is 10th nationally in scoring, 42nd in total yards and 78th in yards per play. Ironically, great field position might have deflated PSU’s stats a little, but do the Lions have another gear?

Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles disregarded the fact Penn State’s rushing numbers (especially a near complete lack of explosive plays) aren’t much to write home about, saying they look impressive on tape, and he will be preparing for a major challenge.

Penn State quarterback Drew Allar also has impressed Knowles, who noted the sophomore excels in the intermediate passing game and said the Buckeyes will seek to limit that.

4. Ryan Day said Kyle McCord’s progression this season is probably similar to the Ohio State head coach’s previous Buckeye quarterbacks in their first year as starter.

Seeing McCord develop in real time, including those times he misses a throw or drops back and doesn’t seem to know what he’s looking at, was informative for scouting Allar.

A year younger with slightly better recruiting pedigree, Allar is also a first-year starter. He’s put up so-so numbers so far — notably with no interceptions.

Turn on the tape and you’ll see a guy who throws a pretty ball but is rather deliberate in the pocket, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can turn down the “wow” factor you’re expecting from a five-star prospect. It might just be a characteristic of a player gaining experience, but fans who only watch their team can lose perspective on that quickly.

Is one or both ready to take off Saturday when their team really needs them to take another step?

5. We’ve seen questions Ohio State has to answer thanks to Notre Dame — and a solid Maryland team — but really have no idea what weaknesses Penn State might have.

Before the season I would have guessed they might struggle at receiver and in the secondary where they lost two NFL guys. I expected an explosive offense with big-play running backs, a good offensive line and a young QB with a strong arm who can go deep on play action. That last thing hasn’t happened much, but they also haven’t needed it.

Most curiously, the running backs also haven’t made any big plays, but maybe that is a function of how teams are defending them. They have been very efficient, as has the QB.

Ironically this is an offense that profiles as the kind Day seems to want Ohio State wants to be this season, but the lack of rushing success has blunted those efforts for the Buckeyes.

6. These are both defensive coordinators who like to push buttons.

That burned them both last year in this game, but not so much so far this season.

PSU’s Manny Diaz had a lot of success sending stunts and blitzes into the Ohio State running game to blow it up last year. Ohio State countered by attacking with the passing game, and the Buckeyes eventually popped a long run, too, as they surged to victory in the fourth quarter.

This year, Diaz’s defense looks as aggressive as ever — with the sacks and tackles for loss to back it up — while Knowles has sought to be more sound and let his personnel dictate the action.

Knowles still doesn’t want to hear the term, “Bend but don’t break,” though.

“I just don’t like the way it sounds,” he said when asked about that Tuesday. “Just say a prevent points defense.”

7. Finally, let’s revisit the running game conversation from last week.

Ohio State had a solid day on the ground against an active Purdue team Saturday thanks in no small part to using more “gap” plays. That means pulling one or two linemen (or a lineman and the tight end) to create new gaps for the defense to defend.

Day said Tuesday that was both an answer to Purdue playing a five-man front essentially and the OSU coaches’ concluding the technique might just fit their players better, too.

He was coy about what we will see this weekend, but such plays could also serve as an answer to Penn State’s tendency to blitz and stunt.

Whatever Ohio State does, it isn’t likely to be less effective than last season when Penn State stuffed (held to no gain or a loss) 38 percent of the Buckeyes’ runs, the highest percentage of the year. Still relying heavily on outsize zone to try to run, Ohio State also had its worst second-worst rushing success rate (38) against PSU last season.

About the Author