Buckeyes To Face First True Road Test

Ohio State expects to face a hostile environment in State College this weekend. The Nittany Lions boast a stout run defense, but a porous O-Line the Buckeyes will look to take advantage of.

When Ohio State takes the field in Happy Valley Saturday it will be it’s third road game of the season, but in a lot of ways it will be like it’s first.

The Buckeyes opened the season at Navy, but that game was played in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium and there were plenty of friendly faces in the crowd. Ohio State played at Maryland Oct. 4, but the 54,000 capacity crowd left early as the Buckeyes routed the Terrapins 52-24.

Urban Meyer expects Saturday at Penn State to be different.

“This is one of those one’s that’s really top five (atmosphere) in the country so it’s hard to get ready for this one,” he said. “We’ve had some good practices and we’re getting some noise pumped in.”

Beaver Stadium is expected to be filled to its 107,282 capacity for the 8 p.m. kickoff between the Buckeyes (5-1, 2-0) and the Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2) and Ohio State had been piping in general crowd noise and music during practices to iron out any potential communication issues.

Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson spent his previous 18 years coaching at Penn State and he has seen that stadium operating at deafening volumes during night games, but the veteran of Beaver Stadium also knows how to quiet things down.

“The best way to block the noise out is score points and play great defense,” Johnson said. “If you do that, it will be pretty quiet. Hopefully the selling point is going and playing well. That's the key.”

The Buckeyes have played well at Penn State in recent years, winning in each of their last three trips to Happy Valley. Those wins, two of which kicked off at 5:30 p.m. or later, have come by an average margin of 32-16. Ohio State has won four of their last five at Penn State with their last loss coming in 2005. In total, the Buckeyes have topped the Nittany Lions in nine of their last 12 meetings.

Still, the Ohio State coaching staff is taking this matchup seriously.

“I’ve heard Penn State considers Ohio State a rival and obviously we have one,” Meyer said. “I think it’s a little bit like when we played Wisconsin a couple years ago… we consider them an elite program and it’s going to be a tough game.”

The Buckeyes youth is the biggest concern when entering a hostile environment as Ohio State starts 14 freshman or sophomores across offense, defense and special teams. The one who will be most in the spotlight Saturday will be redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. Meyer said that just a few weeks ago he would not have been comfortable with the young signal-caller leading the team at Penn State, but now Barrett appears ready.

Wide receivers coach Zach Smith agreed that the quarterback was prepared for State College.

“He's different than most redshirt freshmen, there are no qualms,” Smith said. “There's no lack of confidence. When we're going into that stadium on a Saturday, we know he's leading us. Everyone is confident in that.”

The staff is confident nerves will not be a factor for Barrett Saturday. Some Buckeyes are taking it a step further. Defensive lineman Joey Bosa said he is eager to play in a raucous environment Saturday.

Many of the sophomore’s best games have come on the road. In a season and a half with Ohio State Bosa has registered six of his 11 regular-season sacks and 12 of his 19.5 regular-season tackles for loss on the road.

“They’re trying to talk to us about it so we don’t get nervous, I’m really excited,” Bosa said. “I’ve been talking to everybody all year about, ‘Oh, Penn State is supposed to be the craziest environment.’ We play in front of 108,000 people every weekend, so it kind of sucks when we go away and they don’t have an environment like that.”

Hackenberg Vulnerable

Bosa expects to be a focal point of a key matchup Saturday as the Buckeyes defensive line looks to exploit a much-maligned Penn State offensive line.

The Nittany Lions line has allowed quarterback Christian Hackenberg to be sacked 20 times through six games this season, the 17th most sacks allowed in the country. The 3.33 sacks they are allowing per contest is the 10th most in the country. They’ve allowed nearly 7.7 tackles for loss per game, the 11th worst mark in the country.

Despite the numbers, linebacker Joshua Perry said the Buckeyes aren’t taking anything for granted.

“You’ve got to say it’s a nameless, faceless opponent,” he said. “You’ve got to expect that them to come out here and play their best game of the year. It’s going to be a big game for them, it’s a night game, it’s a big game for us. You’ve got to expect that everybody is going to play out of their shoes in that sort of situation. You can’t just look at the film and say, ‘ok these guys have struggled a little bit, it’s going to be a piece of cake.’ That’s never the case.”

If the Buckeyes pass rush does get past the offensive line, they’ll find Hackenberg. At 6-4, 234 pounds the strong-armed Hackenberg has the measurable that the NFL craves, but the sophomore has had an up and down season.

While often being harassed by defenders behind a porous offensive line Hackenberg has put up 272.8 yards a game through the air, the 22nd best mark in the country. However, he has just five touchdowns against seven interceptions.

Those numbers have been impacted by not only a collapsing pocket, but by a lack of support on the ground. Penn State has the 121st ranked run offense in the country in terms of yards rushing per game, meaning Hackenberg has to carry the team.

Perry said the sophomore is one of the best quarterbacks the Buckeyes will face this season.

“He’s done a really good job, especially being a young player stepping in there when he had to and taking the reins of the team,” the linebacker said. “I know that their coach and their team has a lot of confidence in him. He’ll be a challenge that we face, the fact that he can drop back and do some things and take control of the game the way he does.”

Strength on Strength

While Penn State has struggled to run the ball, they have made sure that their opponents do the same. The Nittany Lions have allowed just 60.83 rushing yards a game, the No. 1 rushing defense in the country.

The strength of Penn State will be lining up against one of the Buckeyes strengths. Ohio State is averaging nearly 260 rushing yards a game, 17th nationally.

“No. 1 rush defense in the country, No. 6 scoring defense in the country,” Smith said of Penn State. “That doesn't happen by accident. I mean, we're not bad on offense either. It will be a fun experience for us and really a challenge that we're excited about.”

A big part of Penn State’s success has been due to the play of linebacker Mike Hull. The senior has 64 tackles this season to lead the team. His 10.67 takedowns a game is 17th best in the country.

The Nittany Lions like to blitz and lineman Pat Elflein said the Buckeyes will see more blitzes Saturday than they have all season. Getting the running game going against Penn State’s stout defense will be key, he said.

“Communication is key among the offensive line,” Elflein said. “They like to blitz a lot so we’re going to have to communicate with J.T. and everybody, so we’ve been working on that. If we go in and do our job we should be happy at the end of the day.

“Identifying what they’re doing and communicating it to all the guys on the line and running our plays off that. That’s going to be the key, communicating in that hostile environment.”

Notes

  • Linebacker Devan Bogard is likely going to need surgery to repair an ACL tear for the third consecutive year, Meyer said on his weekly call-in radio show. The junior injured his left knee while playing special teams against Rutgers.
  • The Buckeyes received more positive news in regards to their other injury concerns. Center Jacoby Boren is cleared to play against Penn State after leaving the Rutgers game with an injury. Defensive back Cam Burrows (shoulder) and defensive lineman Rashad Frazier (ankle) are both questionable.
  • Penn State welcomes Ohio State after an open week Oct. 18.
  • Ohio State leads the all-time series between the two schools 15-13.


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