#9 Ohio State (8-0) and Penn State (5-2) will meet for the 28th time in the two schools' history on Saturday night.
Including vacated games, the Buckeyes lead the series with a 14-13 record all-time.
Ohio State is 11-3-1 all-time in games when they are 8-0. Those three losses all came when the Buckeyes were ranked number one.
The road team is 4-1 in the last five matchups in this series.
When Penn State Has The Ball
While not employing a spread offense, Penn State will certainly spread the ball around to a bevy of weapons. The Nittany Lions have run nearly 95 plays per game the last two weeks, and even though they are in a hurry between plays, they are very patient once the ball has been snapped.
Coming from the New England Patriots, head coach Bill O'Brien loves to use the tight ends in the passing game, and he has brought that with him to the Nittany Lions. In last week's 38-14 win over Iowa, the tight ends caught eleven passes.
All told, tight ends have caught over 50 passes and five touchdowns this year for Penn State.
Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter has 29 receptions for 364 yards and a touchdown. He is an athletic target who is a mismatch against linebackers, and a struggle for safeties. He can also run after the catch, and he will line up out wide as well. Whoever matches up against Carter for the Buckeyes will need to play their best pass defense game of the year.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson is the top target for the Nittany Lions. His 47 receptions (563 yards) leads the conference, as do his eight touchdown catches. When Penn State goes deep, it is usually Robinson on the receiving end.
Pulling the trigger for the Penn State offense is fifth-year senior Matt McGloin. McGloin is leading the Big Ten in passing, averaging 255.4 yards per game. He has thrown 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
When he is in the pocket, McGloin will generally look for the shorter targets, it is when he rolls out on bootlegs, however, that he tends to look downfield for his receivers.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier's nine passes defended is fourth in the conference, and he is the only linebacker in the top 15. He will frequently drop back into a zone and when McGloin is looking for a receiver over the middle, it won't be good enough for Shazier to simply knock a pass down this week. He needs to get both hands on the ball and keep them there. He has dropped upward of a half-dozen interceptions this season, and things have to change this week.
The Ohio State cornerbacks should be able to handle the Lions' receivers, but if the Buckeye defensive line isn't putting pressure on McGloin he will find the open man. The Nittany Lion offensive line has only allowed eight sacks in their seven games this season.
The Buckeye front four is not healthy, but at this point in the season it doesn't matter. They have to go out there and fight. Expect defensive end Nathan Williams to get some snaps at strong side linebacker like he did last week.
Given the lack of health at linebacker, and the Nittany Lions' preference to throw the ball, the Buckeyes will go with quite a bit of nickel this week. If they can also contain Penn State on the ground with five defensive backs on the field, they will be much better off. Purdue attacked Ohio State's linebackers in the passing game last week, and the Nittany Lions will certainly look to do it as well.
The running game will be split between Bill Belton (49-233-3) and Zach Zwinak (84-369-3). Belton prefers to kick the ball outside, while Zwinak is your stereotypical pounder between the tackles. Zwinak won't look to go east and west, so if he is gaining yards, then that means Penn State's offensive line is winning.
The Buckeye linebackers should be able to contain Zwinak, but can't afford to let Belton get to the corner.
As with Ohio State, attrition has really taken its toll on the Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions have allowed both a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns this season. They are also only averaging 18.5 yards on their own kickoff returns, and just 5.6 yards on 17 punt returns.
Punter Alex Butterworth is averaging just 35.7 yards per punt, but eleven of his 27 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. Placekicker Sam Ficken is just 4-11 on field goals this season. He is 0-4 on kicks of 40 yards or longer. He has also missed two extra points.
Penn State's kicking game is such an issue that O'Brien has taken to going for it on fourth down in many kicking situations. It is a gamble that has paid off. The Buckeyes will need to keep Penn State well under .500 on their fourth-down efficiency. They are currently converting at a 61% clip.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
With quarterback Braxton Miller's injury last week, there is a chance the Buckeyes could get action for both he and Kenny Guiton this week. However, if Miller is full go as he says he is, it will be difficult to take him off of the field considering everything he can do.
Miller has rushed for 959 yards and ten touchdowns this season. Last week against Purdue was the first time he failed to rush for 100 yards in a game against a Big Ten opponent this year. He leads the nation in number of carries of ten yards or more (33), as well as carries of 20 yards or more (12). Both of those numbers need to go up if the Buckeyes are going to pull off the upset on Saturday night.
Penn State has the 21st-ranked rush defense in the nation, allowing just 111.6 yards rushing per game. They will be focused on stopping the run, and specifically on stopping Miller. The Nittany Lions are very good up front with defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who is an All-Conference candidate. The Buckeye interior linemen are going to have their hands full with Hill, who is fourth on the team in tackles with 37.
Miller won't be alone in the running game, however, as he'll be joined by Carlos Hyde, who is averaging 90.8 yards rushing in conference play. His nine rushing touchdowns are tied for third in the Big Ten.
Together, Hyde and Miller will attempt to keep the Penn State defense guessing by utilizing the read option. How well Miller manages those reads will determine how well the running game does.
As long as Miller is pain-free, he has to be expected to carry the ball like he has all season, and that will include the called power runs.
Penn State's linebackers are as good as any team's in the country. Leading tackler Michael Mauti is a virtual lock as a First-Team All-Big Ten selection. He has 65 tackles and 2.5 sacks this year. He also has three interceptions, which indicates his skill in defending the passing game.
Expect the Buckeyes to run some power plays directly at Mauti in an effort to get a blocker on him, which could free Miller for a big gain. They will also keep their effective quarterback counter play in their back pocket for an appropriate occasion.
Miller struggled with the pass last week, but can't afford to have the same issues this week. Penn State is vulnerable downfield, and the Buckeyes will certainly take their shots. With the Nittany Lions' ability to stop the run, Miller might find the sailing smoother through the air.
For the passing game to work, the Buckeye receivers will need to hold on to the passes that come their way. They have had too many drops the last few weeks, including some that would have been scores. Ohio State can't afford to leave this game without capitalizing on all touchdown opportunities.
Wide receiver Devin Smith will need to make both the easy catches as well as the difficult catches this week. A dropped pass on a sure touchdown could equal a loss for the Buckeyes. Ohio State is 8-0 during Smith's career when he catches a touchdown pass.
Slot receiver Corey Brown continues to get the ball in different ways and has emerged as a reliable target for Miller. They will look for positive matchups for Brown throughout the game.
The Buckeye tight ends may not be as busy as Penn State's, but they will still be heavily involved in the game plan. Mauti is very good in coverage and will read Miller's eyes if he locks on to a receiver over the middle.
There can be no lapses during the big moments for Ohio State, because they might not be given a second chance to make a play.
This is a game where the Buckeye special teams could capitalize on Penn State's issues, but Ohio State is not without their own problems.
The Nittany Lions have yet to show themselves to be a return threat, so expect the Buckeyes to continue kicking off inside the five-yard line in order to pin Penn State inside the 20-yard line.
Ohio State has scored in the punting game twice this season, once on a return and once on a blocked punt. A third score this week could lock this game up for the Buckeyes.
Placekicker Drew Basil is 3-5 on field goals with a long of just 35 yards to this point. Punter Ben Buchanan is averaging a career-high 42.2 yards per punt and has always done a tremendous job of pinning teams inside the 20-yard line.
How It Will End Up
Penn State is outscoring opponents 66-0 in the first quarter, which also happens to be the only quarter that the Buckeyes are being outscored in (56-51). The Nittany Lions will start quickly in an effort to get a score or two on the board before Ohio State has a chance to get settled.
The Buckeyes have been fortunate to get away with a few wins where they turned the ball over way too often. They can't lose the turnover battle and expect to win. Braxton Miller is going to take some shots and he must not put the ball on the ground.
Many expect the Ohio State defense to perform well because Penn State isn't a spread team, but they will still spread the ball out and make the Buckeyes defend in open spaces. Just because they don't throw wide screens doesn't mean they will be an easy match up.
Ohio State will need to offset McGloin's timing on play-actions and bootlegs with a few blitzes, which could cause him to break down on fundamentals and throw a pass or three that could end up in Buckeye hands.
If they don't pressure McGloin, however, they will lose.
A slow start for the Buckeyes will be hard to overcome, especially battling a Nittany Lion offense that is having success throughout the game.
Ohio State will need a tremendous performance from Braxton Miller in order to negate their defensive lapses, but in the end it just won't be enough.
Penn State 27 – Ohio State 24
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