COLUMBUS, Ohio – Practically no one who witnessed the wild celebration that spilled onto the lush grass of Beaver Stadium last year following Penn State’s 24-21 upset of Ohio State will ever forget that night.
But once the noise died down, the lasting feeling was that the Nittany Lions had arrived, that they had finally defeated a member of the Big Ten elite, and were ready to challenge for their share of Big Ten championships and College Football Playoff berths.
One year later, the Lions, now ranked second just as Ohio State was before last year’s meeting, have another chance to prove themselves. They want to show they can go on the road and defeat the Buckeyes in a noisy Horseshoe on Saturday to give themselves a chance at a repeat conference title and their first trip to the playoffs.
Clearly, it’s not going to be easy.
“I think we’ve got a confident locker room, we’ve got really good chemistry,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “I think we’re where we should be at this point in the season with this team. But we also know it’s one thing to win at home in a “White Out”; it’s one thing to win at home against a ranked opponent. It’s another thing to go on the road and do it.
“I think our team is confident but I also think they’re realistic and understand this is going to be a tremendous challenge. (Ohio State) is as talented a team as there is in the country.”
The sixth-ranked Buckeyes (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) also are prolific. Of the eight major offensive and defensive categories covering scoring, rushing, passing and total yards, they rank in the top 20 of the FBS standings in seven of them. They average 47.3 points per game (second) and 577.3 total yards (third).
However, Ohio State lost its only game against a ranked team, losing 31-16 to then-No. 5 Oklahoma in September. The Nittany Lions have defeated the only ranked team they have faced, last week’s 42-13 thrashing of No. 19 Michigan.
During their five-game winning streak, in which they’ve averaged more than 53 points, the Buckeyes did not defeat a team currently ranked 65th or higher in ESPN’s Football Power Index. But that stretch did give them and coordinator Kevin Wilson a chance to get their fast-paced offense untracked.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett’s next touchdown pass will give him 91 in his career, a Big Ten record. The Penn State secondary will have to be ready.
“One of our goals on defense is not to give up a certain amount of big plays,” senior cornerback Grant Haley said. “I think that’s what we’re going to focus on, keeping everything in front, not getting beat deep, not giving up those big runs. You never want those big plays because it gives an offense momentum and confidence as the game goes on.”
It is the supreme test for Penn State. A win puts the Lions at 2-0 on their difficult three-game stretch ending next week at Michigan State and where they want to be as a frontrunner for the Big Ten East title and a playoff spot. However, a loss, while it doesn’t knock them out of the playoffs, would make a repeat Big Ten East crown more unlikely because the Buckeyes have the tiebreaker.
“It’s going to be a good matchup,” Franklin said, “their offense against our defense and the same thing on the other side of the ball. I think it should be a really exciting game to watch.”
Penn State at Ohio State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
TV: Fox29. Radio: WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Records: Penn State, 7-0 overall, 4-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 2 in the AP poll. Ohio State, 6-1, 4-0, ranked No. 6.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (32-15 in 4th season at Penn State, 56-30 overall). Ohio State, Urban Meyer (67-7 in 6th season at Ohio State, 171-30 overall).
History: Ohio State leads, 18-14, counting its 2010 win that was later vacated by the NCAA.
Last meeting: Penn State, 24-21, Oct. 22, 2016 at Beaver Stadium.
Throwing out the paper: It’s been somewhat of an excruciating exercise this week to determine which team is better on paper. If you compare position groups, it’s a close call. Saquon Barkley is the best multi-purpose player around but the Buckeyes’ J.K. Dobbins is a gifted runner. Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett are dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks. Ohio State’s offensive line might be a little more experienced but Penn State’s defensive line and linebackers have more sacks. The punt coverage teams are very good. It could come down to a field goal, and the Nittany Lions’ Tyler Davis has struggled there, hitting just 6 of 13 attempts. Ohio State’s Sean Nuernberger is 7 for 9 but his longest make is 33 yards.
Joe’s bag of tricks: Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had Barkley taking direct snaps last week for the first time this season, and Barkley carried one into the end zone from 69 yards out. He also had Barkley go in motion to draw the defensive flow to him, and that sprung McSorley to pick up abundant yardage going the other way. What does Moorhead have in store for Saturday?
Who wants to prove what? Urban Meyer hinted at the beginning of the week that he might play the revenge card in preparing his team based on Penn State’s upset win last year in Happy Valley. But when the College Football Playoff bids came out, it was the Buckeyes – not the Nittany Lions – who were going. The Lions want to show that they deserve the playoff berth ahead of Ohio State this time should the Big Ten get just one bid.
Storming out of the blocks: Penn State remains the only FBS team not to allow a point to its opponent in the first quarter, and has scored 90 points of its own in the opening 15 minutes. The Lions put up two touchdowns in the opening five minutes last week against Michigan and would love to see a similar start Saturday.
We’ve got Gus: If Fox Sports play-by-play man Gus Johnson isn’t the best in the business, he’s at least the most exciting to listen to. This will be the first time Johnson has called a Penn State game since the Big Ten championship contest last December. How good was he that night? A sportswriter typically likes to watch the replay of a game he’s covered to just sit back and enjoy. The guy writing this piece you’re reading now did that with Penn State-Wisconsin, and watched it at least a half-dozen more times to enjoy Johnson’s gripping calls of big plays in the game.