The past two weeks, the Buckeye defense alternately has shown it can handle a passing-based spread offense and a run-heavy power attack, but Ohio State figures to need a new level of diversity this week to stop the Nittany Lions' "Spread HD" offense.
While scoring more than 45 points per game, the attack – christened earlier this year by PSU quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno – has taken the Big Ten by storm. But just what is it? Paterno has told reporters the moniker could stand for "highly diverse" or "high definition," but a certain amount of mystery still seems to surround the strategy.
To hear some of Ohio State's defensive players tell it, the HD could stand for "hardly different."
"Before we started watching film a lot of people said they went to a spread offense, but if you watch film sometimes they spread it out, but they're the same Penn State offense they've always been," said Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman, a senior about to enter his third OSU-PSU tilt. "They're just a lot better. They're older and executing what their game plan is and it's going to be a huge challenge for us."
Indeed, many of the same players who started for Penn State in Ohio State's 37-17 whipping of the Nittany Lions last season are back for another round with the Buckeyes this season, but the Penn State attack seems to have grown from average to elite with just a tweak here or there aside from replacing quarterback Anthony Morelli with the dynamic Daryll Clark.
Clark has run for 190 games and eight touchdowns this season, whereas Morelli finished with a net of minus-13 yards rushing last yeas, but Clark is far more than just a runner. This season despite playing with large leads in many games, Penn State is averaging only about three fewer pass attempts per game than in 2007.
"Not a lot of things have changed, but there's always that x-factor where he can tuck it down and run it if he wants to, or they can run more quarterback runs," Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "But as far as their passing game and run game, that's pretty much the same. They love play-action passes, deep balls. They love to run the ball."
By any definition, the PSU offense has been hard to stop this season. Through eight games, the Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in scoring (45.4 points per game) and rushing (234.6) and have yet to beat a team by fewer than 14 points.
Clark's 152.7 pass efficiency rating is second in the Big Ten and only two other conference teams throw for more yards per game than the Nittany Lions.
What makes the offense so hard to stop is the multiple ways in which the Nittany Lions like to attack and how they utilize their personnel.
"They do a good job of mixing it in," Freeman said of the spread formation. "One minute they'll come out with a fullback and a running back and you think they're going to pound the ball, and the next minute they'll bring out three receivers or four."
Aside from moving big people out wide, the Nittany Lions are also known to line up star Derrick Williams – a wide receiver by trade – at running back from time to time.
"It's tough because I think you have certain people in the game that you're going to try to stop the run and then they put those same people at receiver," Freeman said. "I think that's what make their offense so good. They present a challenge that you never know what set they're going to be in or who's going to be in the game."
There is no question a defense's job is made easier when it can hone in on a certain aspect of an offense, but that does not figure to be possible for Ohio State this weekend.
The Buckeyes might have one advantage to fall back on, though. They have some experience facing a team that mixes spread and power principles like Penn State does.
Linebacker James Laurinaitis and his mates saw it during spring practice and preseason camp and will do so again this week when lining up across the ball from the Ohio State offense.
"I think it's very similar," Laurinaitis said. "They have a lot of two-back plays where they will go straight (isolation runs) and lead zones – traditional stuff – and then they'll have the ability to spread it out like we do with four wide receivers and one back, so they've very dynamic and very talented. You have to play off base principles and hope somebody makes a big play."