November 11, 2010

Preview: Penn State at Ohio State

It's happened before...
(Photo: AP)
Most years, Penn State fans can look forward to its annual slug fest with the Ohio State Buckeyes. This might not be one of those years.

That team decked out in Scarlet and Gray has been rolling since the lone loss to No. 6 Wisconsin a few weeks ago in Madison. Penn State, meanwhile, has been steadily improving since what could be labeled as one of the worst home losses in the last 10 years, falling 33-13 to Illinois in a game less competitive than the final score even indicated.

Though riding a very quaint three-game winning streak, the Nittany Lions do appear, "on paper," to be thoroughly outclassed heading into Ohio Stadium this Saturday afternoon. That remains to be proven, though it is entirely likely such will happen.

Penn State won the last game played at Ohio State. Can the Nittany Lions do it again?

Here's your weekly preview and breakdown.

The Ohio State Defense

Ohio State has perennially fielded the Big Ten's best overall defense over the last decade, with only Penn State coming close to averaging the same kind of defensive production in that time. Much of that comes from excellent recruiting, but most of it comes from execution and coaching. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock is one of the best, earning the Broyles Award for his efforts in Columbus.

The Buckeyes don't employ any wacky scheme, play overly aggressive, or anything remotely unique on defense. They don't have to. Heacock generally runs his unit out of a 4-3 base defense, but likes to bring pressure from all directions, of course depending on the situation. And while this year the secondary has been hurt by injuries, the standard bearers for the defense continues to be the line and linebackers, which have little trouble compensating for he shaky defensive backfield.

Ohio State is coming into this game with the No. 3 defense nationally. But what's even scarier is that ranking doesn't come from just having a stellar run defense, or a really great pass D. No, Ohio State has been across-the-board great statistically on defense this year, with the No. 3 scoring (13.6 ppg), No. 4 rushing (84 ypg) and No. 3 passing (150 ypg) defenses in major college football.

Matt McGloin
Matt McGloin gets the start again,
but will he have similar success
against a great OSU defense?
(Photo: Mike/LBU)
PSU Pass Offense vs. Ohio State

The last two weeks, Penn State has faced the two worst pass defenses in the Big Ten--Michigan and Northwestern. So it's a bit difficult to get excited for Matt McGloin's chances to have another 250-yard day like he did against Michigan, or another four touchdown performance we saw in last week's win over Northwestern.

I get the strong feeling Rob Bolden will play in this game, so I'm going to mention that here, along with the stats for both quarterbacks. McGloin has a 7-to-1 TD-INT ratio this season, passing for 551 yards, all of that against three very poor defenses. Bolden enters this week with a 5-to-7 TD-INT ratio, passing for 1350 yards in eight games, including at Alabama, at Iowa, and against Illinois.

Ohio State does have some weakness in its secondary, particularly with lack of depth. But if the ball never makes it out of the pocket, that all becomes moot. Cameron Heyward is a beast along Ohio State's front line, and will get moved around to combat anything Penn State may try to do to neutralize him. He is super in coverage, as we saw him take back an interception 80 yards against Miami(Fla.). Penn State's line is improving, but this is a different monster up front.

Impact Spot: Screen passes... You have to love Penn State's playcalling the last few weeks, particularly the near-flawless execution of screen passes to both the fullbacks and tailbacks. Against an active and aggressive Buckeyes front seven, keeping them honest will be critical.

Evan Royster
Evan Royster has put together consecutive
100-yard games, but Ohio State poses a much
tougher challenge. (Photo: Mike/LBU)
PSU Rush Offense vs. Ohio State

You will sense a theme developing quickly here, as Ohio State's defensive front seven will play the biggest role in stopping Penn State's resurgent offense. The Nittany Lions had their best day of the season on the ground last week, rumbling for 260 yards, with Evan Royster and Silas Redd both topping 131 yards. There is a developing rhythm to the rushing game, which can be seen in the yards-per-carry averages. Royster has a very nice, consistent 5.2 ypc, proving to be the workhorse starter. But Redd, averaging 7.1 ypc, has proven to be an explosive change-of-pace tailback.

However, this all goes back to the question of whether or not Penn State's recent success on offense can be mostly credited to the low quality defenses played against in recent weeks. Ohio State's rushing defense is far from the stingy units we're used to--the Buckeyes have feed on the likes of Marshall, Eastern Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota--particularly after Wisconsin was able to run at will against OSU. But keep in mind that it doesn't take a stellar defense to hold down the Penn State offense. Against Alabama, Iowa and Illinois, Penn State was able to muster a mere 82 yards per game on the ground, with no touchdowns.

Impact Spot: First down passing... I get a sneaky feeling that Jay Paterno will want to come out throwing at Ohio State. It's a good plan, as long as each passing play is guaranteed to get the offense five yards or more. Why? Penn State simply cannot run the ball when the other team is ready for it. There is no worse time to run the ball, especially against a smart defense like Ohio State's, than on first down. Passing on "running downs" may be the only way to open up room for Royster and Redd.

The Ohio State Offense

Pick up an extra bottle of ibuprofen before 3:30 Saturday afternoon. Opposing fans love to dog Pryor for not having the kind of Heisman caliber season the national and regional media constantly tries to ram down our throats. But he's still a really frickin' good player on the field, and will surely give the Penn State defense a bigger headache than you or I will have at any point in the game.

Ohio State entered this week with the nation's No. 7 scoring offense (42 ppg), the end result of fielding the No. 17 total (456 ypg), No. 19 rushing (212) and No. 42 passing (244 ypg) offensive units. But like the defense, it's not any special offensive scheme that gives this unit its pop. Pryor is actually under center more than expected, though the shotgun is a staple of the gameplan.

Jim Tressel calls the plays for Ohio State, even though Jim Bollman still retains the technical role of offensive coordinator. There has been heat on both of them for not being aggressive enough, playing "not to lose," rather than "to win." Sound familiar?

Ohio State Pass Offense vs. Penn State

Pryor still isn't a passing quarterback, no matter how hard Buckeyes fans try to convince you otherwise. But as with Denard Robinson a few weekends ago, Penn State fans know that a dangerous running quarterback doesn't have to be a great thrower, as defenses are so afraid to let him run, they allow him to have easier reads and throws. Pryor comes into this game with a 20-to-7 TD-INT ratio, passing for 1997 yards, while averaging 5.5 yards per carry for 51 yards per game, and four rushing touchdowns. One man band he may be.

Pete Massaro
Pete Massaro is just one of PSU's defensive ends
that has to play disciplined football this week
to contain Terrelle Pryor. (Photo: Mike/LBU)
Penn State gave Michigan TE Kevin Koger a 60-yard walk-in touchdown, because the defense's eyes were fixated on Robinson in the pocket. The secondary has improved for Penn State the last few weeks, but it's not nearly good enough to hold up on its own without help from the front seven. Too bad that help may not come. The Ohio State offensive line isn't great this year, but Penn State has been atrocious at sacking opposing quarterbacks, with 13 sacks all season. Much of that can be attributed to the rash of injuries along the defensive line and in the secondary.

Impact Spot: Containment... Penn State has to, has to, has to keep Pryor in the pocket. It won't happen that way, but the goal has to be set that high for anything to work against the Ohio State offense, particularly the pass offense. Allowing Pryor to roll out gives him more time, and his receivers more time to get open.

Ohio State Rush Offense vs. Penn State

Until Ohio State gets rolling on offense, the downhill running game tends to take a while to develop. Dan "Boom" Herron has been great as the leading back, rushing for 70 yards per game, with a 4.9 ypc average, and 12 touchdowns. But much of the running game centers around how well Pryor can get moving on the defenses. Behind him and Herron, there isn't much in terms of productions, but there is talent, as backups Jamaal Berry and Brandon Saine have combined to add 56 yards per game and three touchdowns. Berry is dangerous with an 8.7 ypc average.

Ollie Ogbu
Ollie Ogbu will have to team with Devon Still
for another great game from PSU's
defensive tackles. (Photo: Mike/LBU)

Since the Buckeyes don't run a traditional spread offense like Northwestern or Michigan, this offers a different test for the Nittany Lions defense, which is coming off its best two-quarter performance in years. Michael Mauti looks like the next great one at "Linebacker U," while he has help from an improving front seven that is also getting healthier each week.

Impact Spot: Interior line... Devon Still and Ollie Ogbu can't get enough praise for what they've been able to do for this Penn State defense. Ogbu is the most disruptive of the two, with 7.5 tackles for loss and a half-sack. But Still is definitely the benefactor of being part of a great two-headed monster up the middle, leading the team with four sacks, with 6.5 TFL. Not only are Still and Ogbu responsible for making plays, their ability to suck up double-team blocks allows the linebackers to have open tackling and blitzing lanes to run through.

Special Teams

It's "Tressel Ball" right? Not so much this year. Ohio State has been everything less than impressive on kick and punt returns; just about functional in the punting game; good in the kicking game; yet an absolute train wreck earlier this year in punt and kick coverage. Miami(Fla.) ran back TWO kicks against OSU, while Wisconsin took the opening kickoff in for a score before you could spell "Nuts."

Penn State is the other side of that. After an off-season of stressing special teams work, this unit has saved the Nittany Lions in a few games this year. Field position has come up huge the last two victories, as both Anthony Fera's punting and kickoff distances have kept opponents pinned with at least 75 yards to go on every single drive. The return game isn't really great, but at least they're not fumbling every return.

If this game comes down to special teams, Penn State--shockingly enough--has a huge edge.

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Short yardage downs... Penn State has a nasty habit this season of getting itself into third- and fourth-and-short situations. Far too often, it results in no gain and a stop for the opposing defense. But recently that's started to turn around. Against Ohio State, holding onto the ball, and keeping said ball away from Terrelle Pryor, will start and end with converting that 3rd-and-1 into a first down.

Red Zone... This will remain a regular in this section until Penn State can prove it against a living, breathing defense like Ohio State's. The Nittany Lions have been fantastic the last 13 trips into the red zone, scoring 11 touchdowns and a field goal. Had it not been for Joe Paterno calling a kneel-down at the Michigan two, Penn State may have a 100 percent conversion rate on its last 13 red zone trips. But this is most definitely not Michigan's defense, or Northwestern's, or Minnesota's pathetic unit.


With the set at Ohio State(-17), it's not easy to get excited for this game. But being the infallibly eternal optimist, there is reason for hope, even if the end result is a Penn State loss. The Nittany Lions are roaring now, on the hottest of hot streaks, riding a dynamic defensive effort last week, and a scrappy quarterback who's quickly earning everyone's respect. Ohio State may be the best team Penn State has played to this point. Yes, Iowa is right up there, too. But this is November, and Ohio State simply owns this month, especially when it comes down to games played within the raucous confines of Ohio Stadium.

Joe Paterno earned his 400th win last week in dramatic fashion. It would take one of his best coaching efforts ever to get out of Columbus with win No. 401. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? Well... This is indeed a rebuilding year for Penn State. That fact has been somewhat lost the last three weeks. The refresher course starts at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

NR AP / 6-3, 3-2 BigTen @ OSU
#8 AP 8-1, 4-1 BigTen
11/13, 3:30 p.m./ESPN Wk 10 - W, 35-21 vs NW Wk 10 - BYE

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1 comment:

  1. Prediction: if McGloin throws a TD pass in the first quarter, we win, if not, we lose (and yes, I know that a PSU QB has never thrown a TD in the shoe, that is why I make this prediction). We need to turn the offense loose and throw deep, right from play one. McGloin has shown he can throw the deep ball, I think we can max-protect and let Moye or Smith run deep and put some heat on the Buckeye corners. On defense, we need to watch the Wisconsin tape and do the exact same thing. I don't think are defensive personnel are that much worse than Wisconsin, if we can play the same scheme, and confuse Pryor with multiple coverages, we have a chance to stop him. I also think Mauti should be turned loose on him. I think this is OSU's game to lose, but somehow I also think we could see something special, some more McGloin/Mauti magic could make things interesting. If only Paterno doesn't go into his typical "OMG this is the Horseshoe - play-not-to-lose" mode, we really have a shot.