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Ohio State vs. Penn State Preview
By Tony Gerdeman

Saturday night’s game between #3 Penn State (8-0) and #9 Ohio State (7-1) will pit two of the most storied programs in college football history.

Penn State has an all-time record of 797-347-42. Their 797 wins are the sixth-most in college football history. Ohio State’s all-time record is an even better 805-305-53 and their 805 wins are good for fifth all-time.

The two schools have met on 23 occasions, and the Buckeyes hold the 12-11 edge in the series.

The home team has won twelve of the last fifteen meetings, and since 1975 the higher-ranked team is 16-1 in this match up. Since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993, these two teams have met fifteen times. Ten of those times, there has been at least one team ranked in the Top Five (twice there were two Top Five teams involved). The higher-ranked team in these match-ups is 10-0.

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno is 7-12 against Ohio State in his career, and since 1993, he is just 5-10 against the Buckeyes, including an 0-7 mark in Ohio Stadium.

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel is 5-2 against Penn State in his career. Tressel is also 8-5 against opponents ranked in the Top Ten.

This weekend is Homecoming for the Buckeyes, and Ohio State holds a 63-18-5 record all-time on Homecoming.

Ohio State is 6-1 in home night games in the school’s history, with their lone loss coming to the eventual National Champion Texas Longhorns in 2005.

This is the tenth time a Joe Paterno-led Nittany Lion team has started 8-0. All nine times previously, his teams made it to 9-0.

When Penn State Has The Ball

The Nittany Lion offense has been dubbed the “Spread HD Offense”, and when you name your own offense, you better be able to back it up-and they can. Penn State leads the conference in scoring, averaging 45.3 points per game, though that total drops to 38 points per game in conference play.

They have one of the most explosive and balanced offenses in the Big Ten, averaging 231 yards passing and 195 yards rushing in conference play. Penn State runs a spread attack, which allows them to attack wide with receivers, and inside with running backs.

Quarterback Darryl Clark is the third-rated passer in conference play and has only thrown two interceptions on the season. He has thrown eleven touchdown passes and rushed for eight Tds as well. He does, however, prefer to stand in the pocket and throw the ball. He is a dual-threat quarterback, but he is only averaging 24 yards rushing per game.

If the Buckeyes can get pressure on him, he has a tendency to let his passes sail. When he is rolling out, however, he can still find receivers and he is fairly accurate on the move. It will be imperative for the Ohio State defensive ends to have containment on Clark and keep his movement within the pocket. That would allow a smaller area of comfort from which he can throw.

Penn State has started the same five players on the offensive line all season long and they have protected Clark very well. He has only been sacked six times and more often than not, he has time to look through his reads.

The Ohio State defensive line has been playing better each week, but they will be facing their toughest opponent, and toughest assignments of the season. Because of Penn State’s spread attack, we may see five defensive backs on the field for a good portion of the game. When that happens, the Buckeyes will probably alternate between having three linebackers and three defensive linemen or four defensive linemen and two linebackers in there with the nickel package.

The Nittany Lions have three senior wide receivers that will see the ball in Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood. Despite Williams’ reputation as a big-play receiver, Butler and Norwood are the two receivers that actually make big plays in the passing game. Williams, however, will be given the ball anywhere on the field. He will line up out wide, in the slot and in the backfield as a tailback.

Much of the time, the Buckeyes are likely to counter these three receivers with cornerbacks Malcolm Jenkins, Chimdi Chekwa and Donald Washington. All three are more than capable in coverage and allow the Buckeyes to blitz and play more aggressive up front, because they are very good in man coverage.

However, playing five defensive backs will open the Buckeyes up to the Nittany Lion running game, and Penn State doesn’t need any help in this regard. Tailback Evan Royster has carried the ball 116 times for 893 yards (7.7 avg) and 10 touchdowns. He has no wasted motion when he is running the ball and his every movement is with the intent of moving forward. He is quick, strong, fast and decisive. One missed tackle may be all it takes for Royster to go the distance.

If the defensive line can’t get a hand or three on Royster, they will need to make sure they keep the offensive line occupied so that the Buckeye linebackers can meet Royster as close to the line of scrimmage as possible. Last week against Michigan State, there wasn’t much room for Javon Ringer because the linebackers were immediately on him. This week, it won’t be so easy. Penn State will throw wide and keep the linebackers running east and west so that they won’t be so eager to go north and south.

The Penn State running game has been held under 200 yards rushing just once, and that was in their blowout of Wisconsin where they only ran for 106 yards.

The Nittany Lions redzone offense is the best in the conference. They have scored on 41 of their 44 attempts with 32 touchdowns. The three times that they didn’t score were due to two fumbles and an interception.

Their special teams are superb as well. Place-kicker Kevin Kelly has made all 43 of his extra point attempts and is 12-14 on field goals. His only misses have come on attempts of 45 and 60 yards. He has a huge leg and is in range from the 40-yard line and in.

Punter Jeremy Boone has had an okay season (41.1 yard average per punt) but maybe it’s just due to lack of attempts.

The biggest threat from the Penn State special teams comes from Derrick Williams and the return game. He is averaging just 10.3 yards per punt return, but he does have a 63-yard touchdown to his credit this season. He also has two kickoff returns for touchdowns as well, as evidenced by his 32.2 yard average per kickoff return. Obviously, the Buckeyes are going to have to be careful here, but have shown themselves to be very capable defending returns this season. Of course, they haven’t been tested like this yet.

When Ohio State Has The Ball

Penn State has faced three conference opponents who run the ball. Against those three opponents (Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan), they gave up an average of 180 yards rushing. The Buckeyes come into this game with the top rushing attack in conference play, averaging 201 yards rushing per game.

The amazing thing is that those three opponents put up that average while getting blown out. How much better would those numbers have looked had Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan been able to run the ball all four quarters?

While Penn State has a quality defensive line, their middle has proven to be somewhat soft in conference play. Against Michigan, running back Brandon Minor was frequently hitting runs up the gut and going virtually untouched until a linebacker or defensive back was dragging him down seven yards downfield.

And against the Nittany Lions, Michigan quarterback Steven Threet carried the ball ten times for 47 yards in the first half. What would have happened had he not been injured and was able to play the entire game?

(Michigan still would have lost.)

The point is that there are open avenues for the running game against this defense and Big Ten teams are proving it. And now Penn State will have to face the Big Ten’s top rushing attack.

Running back Chris Wells is third in the conference in rushing, averaging 127 yards rushing per game in Big Ten play. There are few running backs more direct than Wells and the Buckeyes will attack the middle of the Penn State defensive line to see just how soft it is.

Behind the defensive line is the usual corps of quality Penn State linebackers. Outside linebacker Navorro Bowman is one of the bigger defensive play-makers in the conference. He leads the team with 71 tackles, including 9.5 for loss and three sacks. He will be attacking early and often.

Like most Penn State middle linebackers before him, starter Josh Hull isn’t the best athlete, but he knows where he needs to be. However, he can’t always get there. He and Bowman are going to get to know Chris Wells very well.

Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor must also be mentioned in this discussion of the running game, because few players in the nation can pick up thirty yards on the run as quickly as he can. When Pryor keeps the read-option, he may only need two quality blocks to reach the end zone from anywhere on the field.

Michigan attacked the Penn State defense by running Steven Threet, but they mainly stayed within the hash marks with him because he didn’t have the speed to get outside. Pryor has the speed to attack Penn State all over the field, but he must do it quickly. Like last week, go forward as quickly as possible and get positive yardage.

If the Penn State defense has a weakness, it is their secondary. However, because they have perhaps the nation’s best group of defensive ends rushing the passer, the secondary has been able to hold up fairly well. The Nittany Lions have accounted for 23 sacks on the season, which leads the Big Ten; however they have only managed nine sacks in four conference games. As the schedule has stiffened, so have the statistics.

Defensive end Aaron Maybin is second in the nation with ten sacks and third in the nation with 14.5 tackles for loss. Ohio State offensive tackles Alex Boone and Bryant Browning will be facing their toughest battles of the season in Maybin and fellow defensive ends Josh Gaines and Maurice Evans.

It would probably be a good idea for the Buckeyes to keep a running back or tight end in for max protection. Yes, it takes a receiver out of the passing game, but if the first or second option isn’t available, Terrelle Pryor needs to tuck the ball and get upfield and keep the chains moving. The Buckeyes don’t need him looking for his third or fourth read. His third read should be to run, and that’s it.

The Ohio State passing game has not been very explosive to this point, however, it looked good last week in the first half before the coaches shut it down in favor of running the clock in the second half.

The Buckeye receivers have had success against this secondary in the past and they are very comfortable playing against them. Pryor only needs the time to find them.

The Ohio State special teams aren’t as explosive as Penn State’s, but they are still plenty solid. Punter A.J. Trapasso will have to be careful with Derrick Williams however. Last week, Michigan chose to punt out of bounds rather than give Williams a chance to return the ball. This gave Penn State good field position throughout. The Buckeyes may not want to approach Williams this way given Jim Tressel’s love of field position.

Wide receiver Ray Small continues to make plays at punt returner, and despite Williams’ accolades, it’s actually Small who leads the conference in returns. Of course, if he continues the bobbles, he will be replaced. Expect to see two returners back on punts this week, after only having Small back last week.

Penn State has the second-best kickoff coverage unit in the conference, so freshman receiver Lamaar Thomas will need to be ready to get hit and needs to avoid the jitters that have plagued him at times this season.

How It Will End Up

The focus for the Ohio State defense is going to be on stopping the run and forcing Darryl Clark to beat them. He definitely has the ability, but his receivers will be going against a secondary that is far superior to anything they’ve seen before.

Running back Evan Royster will still find room because he is too good to be stopped, however, don’t expect him to equal his 7.7 yard per carry average.

The Nittany Lions average six plays of 20 yards or more per game. They will also fall short of that average.

For the Ohio State offense, you’ll be seeing a team that is averaging 200 yards rushing per game going against a defense that is allowing 180 yards rushing per game when playing teams inclined to run the ball.

The Buckeyes are a team so inclined.

Ohio State will pound the ball on the ground with Chris Wells and change it up with Terrelle Pryor on designed runs and the zone read. They will likely combine for 200 yards rushing between the two of them.

And when the Nittany Lion defense is creeping up too much, Pryor will hit them with the play-action, assuming he isn’t getting sacked

It won’t quite be “Spread HD” from the Ohio State offense, but there won’t be any static either.

Ohio State 27 - Penn State 23

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