Ten Questions with StateCollege.com's Ben Jones
by Tony Gerdeman
Two of the three Leaders Division contenders will be meeting Saturday night as the #4 Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0) host the Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-1). Not counting the 2010 game that was vacated, Penn State has won the last two games played in Columbus.
So what kind of team is Bill O'Brien bringing with him this weekend? That's a question better left to Ben Jones, who covers Penn State football, basketball and hockey for StateCollege.com. Ben was nice enough to not be overly annoyed by my questioning.
Tony - Christian Hackenberg has thrown more passes than anybody else in the conference, yet thrown just six interceptions. Buckeye defenders seem to think they can rattle him with pressure, but have you seen that from him much this season?
Ben - Really there haven't been very many times, if any, that Hackenberg has looked rattled. In terms of playing well, Hackenberg hasn't looked great from time to time, but pressure and atmosphere and all of those kinds of things haven't seemed to have gotten to him. There has been a lot of talk about the Ohio State crowd and I think it might play a factor early, but he has played in front of a white out here in town. The fans might not be screaming at him, but I imagine the general buzz and level of nerves you get is about the same. I'm sure he'll take a sack or two, but I've yet to see one bad play directly spiral into multiple bad plays for him.
Tony - Do you expect Penn State to be able to run the ball, and if so, who will be carrying the ball? The staff seems to have lost some confidence in Zach Zwinak. And where has Akeel Lynch been?
Ben - I think Zwinak will play. They don't have much of a choice if they want to establish a run game. Belton is talented but he isn't the physical back Penn State will need to try and do what Iowa did to Ohio State on the ground. It's true that his leash is a little shorter with some poorly timed fumbles under his belt, but I would expect to see Zwinak out there first with plenty of Belton on the side. As far as Lynch, that's the mystery question of the day. He's talented and can run, but it'll come down to how much O'Brien trusts him in a big spot. I don't actually know, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him show up on Saturday and be a bit of a wrinkle in the offense. He still isn't great in pass protection like Zwinak is, but that doesn't mean O'Brien can't find a spot for him. If he doesn't play at all on Saturday that'll be two straight games without Lynch which will only increase everyone's collective questioning.
Tony - Much was expected of defensive end Deion Barnes, but he hasn't produced. He didn't even start last week. I assume because of this that the pass rush has been somewhat disappointing. Is that the case?
Ben - Penn State likes to keep positions open each week. So Barnes simply got beat out by Anthony Zettel who has played well in his own right. It's accurate to say that Barnes hasn't put up the numbers he did last year, but O'Brien has strongly stood on his side all season. The current argument, which is fairly accurate, is that Barnes is the kind of players teams just run away from. Not to suggest he's this unblockable player, but until CJ Olaniyan started playing well it was just easier to avoid Barnes. In his defense, Barnes is in a lot of plays, he just doesn't always produce on the stat sheet. So in terms of numbers he's not having a great year but I wouldn't say he's playing bad so to speak.
Tony - Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is second on the team in tackles (39) and tied for first in solo tackles (24). Um, how?
Ben - Jones played behind Jordan Hill for the last few years and has credited Hill with teaching him a lot of the trade while he was still at Penn State. Jones cut down on junk food, worked out a lot harder and has just stepped up his game all around. Despite the general staff turnover when O'Brien came to town, Larry Johnson Sr. is still in Happy Valley working the defensive line like he has for so many years. So half the credit goes to Jones and the rest goes to Johnson.
Tony - Braxton Miller has rushed for 100 yards against Penn State each of the previous two years. Michigan's Devin Gardner rushed for 121 yards against the Nittany Lions two weeks ago. Given what you've seen this season from PSU's defense, how much of a concern is Miller's running in this game?
Ben - Anytime you face a team like Ohio State or Michigan you kind of have to pick what you want to hurt you. I think that Penn State would probably rather have Miller beat the defense on his feet rather than through the air. Gardner had a lot of offense two weeks ago but I wouldn't say that very much of it was coming in major game changing plays, he just sort of accumulated it over the course of the game bit by bit. If Penn State is making Miller run the ball that means the secondary is doing a good job in coverage, and considering how up and down the secondary has been, Penn State would rather give up 10-15 yards than a 45-yard bomb. It will really depend on how much he is able to gash the linebackers and defensive line.
Tony - Players on Ohio State's defense have said that they need to attack more against Penn State. Do the Nittany Lions have the type of offensive line that can hold up?
Ben - Going into the Michigan game that was the same question, and for the most part Michigan couldn't do a whole lot up front on defense. Generally I think Penn State is going to manage the game with safer plays in the early going, taking 4-5 yards when it can. So in many respects I think that Hackenberg will be getting rid of the ball faster which is a great way to negate a pass rush. The gamble that Ohio State will take rushing more players is the chance Allen Robinson can catch a slant 5-10 yards out and take it to the house. I don't think scoring will be that easy by any stretch, but Robinson is the kind of counter weapon to a pass rush that can make up for a average offensive line if Hackenberg has time to get it to him in space. So is the offensive line good enough? It's better than it was, and if it isn't great it might not matter if Hackenberg is more of a three-step drop quarterback on Saturday.
Tony - Where do you think Penn State will have its best chance for success Saturday night?
Ben - Obviously you're going to need a balanced attack, but I think anyone who has watched either of these teams knows that Penn State can pass and Ohio State's only real weakness is the secondary. That's not to say Hackenberg is going to go off, but if Penn State is going to win it won't be because a running back went for 200+.
Tony - Where do you think Ohio State will have its best chance for success Saturday night?
Ben - Penn State's defense isn't bad, but it's not going to scare anyone either. If Ohio State can get a quick score or two passing then I don't think Penn State has the firepower right now to get into a shootout. Penn State has playmakers on defense, but between Carlos Hyde pounding away and Miller's double threat it's hard to imagine that Ohio State's offense on its own won't eventually generate the points. I don't think it'll be easy for Ohio State, but I think in the end Penn State's defense makes enough mistakes over the course of a game that Miller will beat them deep once or twice.
Tony - Going through the Big Ten team stats, Penn State is in the middle of the pack in most of the stats defensively. Is that indicative of a consistently okay, but not great, defense, or one that is up and down?
Ben - I sort of touched on this before, but Penn State's defense is basically in the middle of the pack, so it's consistently okay. The Indiana game wasn't a good showing on either side of the ball and really isn't a good indicator of how the team can play. If Penn State's defense plays like it did against Michigan it has a chance. There are a lot of good players on that side of the ball, so don't let average fool you into thinking they can't make a play.
Tony - What is the one thing that must happen for Penn State to pull off the upset?
Ben - The defense has to show up. If Hackenberg can avoid Penn State's obligatory second half pick-six, I think he'll be good enough to keep Penn State in the game if the defense can avoid giving up the big play. If Hyde doesn't gain yards at will and Miller can't drop 30 yard passes on Penn State then I think we have a game in the second half. It's really just a matter of which Penn State team shows up. I've said from Week two or three that if Penn State can catch Ohio State's offense on a bad day, or a C+ day, that Ohio State's defense is beatable enough that Penn State could win. I don't know if that'll happen, but I think if Penn State wins it'll be because those things did occur.
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