Ohio State Football: Scouting Penn State

Does Penn State have at least a puncher's chance of pulling an upset Saturday against Ohio State? You bet. We take a look at the Nittany Lions' strengths and weaknesses.

One thing that must be said for Penn State and it's new coaching staff this season: They seem to know who they are on the field.

This Nittany Lion offensive line is worse than Michigan's was last year, but James Franklin and Co. don't ask their front to do as much as Brady Hoke and Al Borges did in 2013.

While Michigan didn't start actually trying to use constraint plays to get outside and keep a defense off balance (making it easier to run at times) until they played Ohio State, Penn State has built its entire offense around them. They had to do this because they can't protect in a traditional drop-back setting, and golden-armed quarterback Christian Hackenberg has too often doubled down on missed protections by making bad decisions that lead to turnovers or near-turnovers.

Look for PSU to make extensive use of a variety of screen passes and various short routes to try to get the ball out of Hackenberg's hands. He seems to have regressed this season with more on his shoulders, but a sophomore slump is not surprising given the arrival of a new coaching staff and the losses on the offensive line. He set the bar pretty high, too.

Despite having at least two (Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak) and probably three (Akeel Lynch being the third) solid options at running back, Penn State's power running game is nearly non-existent due to that offensive line. Look for a lot of draws and misdirection plays. They do have a wildcat package with Belton that includes a passing option, and it stands to reason they worked on beefing this up with their extra week to prepare for the Buckeyes.

One has to guess the bye week will also help them further perfect a plan to attack Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have been pretty good at stopping the short stuff so far this season while seeing a variety of different types of passing games from Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers. If Ohio State tackles and avoids missed assignments, it could be a long day for PSU. That was far from a sure-thing last season, particularly by the Michigan game, but I think a plan like Michigan's (though they don't have a QB who can run) is what will be in order for the Lions.

If Hackenberg has time, he can make every throw. He is not a bad scrambler, and he can find guys after breaking the pocket and turn nothing into something. The bootleg could be an important weapon for PSU against Ohio State as well because of misdirection, and the Buckeyes have struggled against it at times both this year and last.

Hackenberg has a pair of outside receivers who can go get the ball and win one-on-one matchups in DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis. Hamilton in particular is very impressive -- a fluid athletic with size and ball skills. He's barely a step down from stud Allen Robinson, if at all. They also have a few options at tight end, but you probably already knew that.

Per Football Outsiders advanced stats, the offense has had to rely on methodical drives. I don't think the lack of explosive drives is a reflection of the talent but just a function of what they can do based on their offensive line. The unit's numbers are surprisingly solid on standard downs, where it ranks 47th nationally compared to 81st on passing downs. That's not thanks to the line at all, though, as it checks in 124th in both standard down line yards and stuff rate (percentage of carries for no gain or a loss).

Defensively, Penn State is solid all across the front line with the clear standout being Anthony Zettel. He is an athletic playmaker who can rush the passer, but he also has the strength and quickness to make plays in the running game as the 3-technique. The other guys can hurt you if you pay too much attention to him. Nose tackle Austin Johnson does a good job occupying blockers, and the ends can clean up messes.

At linebacker, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman are both guys who stand out. They can find the football and close distance. Jordan Lucas is a pretty good cover guy at corner who also has a lot of experience.

It's hard to know exactly what to make of the Penn State pass defense, which made life miserable for Rutgers' Gary Nova with five interceptions but has only two picks in the other five games -- including one by Zettel, who read a screen pass at Michigan and dropped back into the path of the throw.

They'll mix things up defensively and look like they are big on bringing pressure in a variety of ways on any down. Again, the extra week of preparation could be a chance for the staff to draw up some things specifically to attack Ohio State's weaknesses, although the Buckeyes' attack has been expanding every week it seems since the loss to Virginia Tech.

I would look for Penn State to try to do some things to create big plays defensively rather than sit back and get picked apart underneath or bludgeoned in the running game.

Follow on Twitter @marcushartman


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