The challenge is obvious, the mission difficult.
In this corner you have an Ohio State offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring, total yardage and rushing yards.
In the other corner you have a Penn State defense that is again among the best in the nation, despite ill health the entire season.
Given the Nittany Lions’ offensive inconsistency, it seems clear that their chances Saturday night in Columbus will hinge on the adequacy of that defense — that for PSU to hang in there with the No. 1 team in the land (and the defending national champion) the guys on that side of the ball will have to hold the fort, create field position, perhaps score themselves (as was the case last season).
And it seems just as clear that defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will have to dig deeply into his bag of tricks to contain an attack that has achieved incredible balance: The Buckeyes average exactly 230 yards on the ground, and 230 through the air, as well as 36.8 points a game.
Start with the fact that OSU plays two quarterbacks — the starter, the big-armed (and big-boned) Cardale Jones and the more nimble J.T. Barrett, who started a 31-24 double-overtime victory over Penn State last season and now functions as the Buckeyes’ red-zone guy.
Add in running back Ezekiel Elliott, the nation’s fourth-leading rusher with 859 yards (6.9 per attempt).
And then consider converted quarterback Braxton Miller, a Swiss Army Knife of a player. Listed as a wide receiver, the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year lines up at running back and even back at QB on occasion. He is Ohio State’s second-leading rusher (161 yards, 6.4) and its third-leading receiver (13 catches, 14.8 ypc).
“A lot of playmakers,” Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said of the Ohio State offense during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. And that, he added, “definitely stands out.”
“A lot of guys,” he said, “they want to touch the ball, I’d say.”
Bell said the Buckeyes’ approach doesn’t change that much, no matter which QB is in the game, and added the obvious when he said Barrett is a little better runner — though the 6-foot-5, 249-pound Jones has been known to power through tacklers.
“Playing against Barrett last year, we’re kind of familiar with his skill set,” Bell said. “Really the new one we have to prepare for is Jones.”
And Elliott, Bell said, “has the whole package.”
“Obviously,” he added, “he has speed; you see him breaking away. He has size to run downhill in between the tackles and I think he’s a savvy player.”
Penn State counters with a defense that is finally whole (or as whole as it’s going to be). Bell, plagued by what is believed to be an ankle injury, has missed two of the first six games, and the secondary has likewise had its share of nicks.
But everybody (save middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, who was lost for the season to a knee injury in the opener against Temple) was available for last Saturday’s 29-7 victory over Indiana, just the second time that has been the case. The other time was against Rutgers, when the Lions won 28-3.
Despite everything, the Lions are 10th in the nation in total defense (275.7 ypg), 11th in scoring defense (14.3 ppg), 13th against the pass (158.7) and 26th against the run (117.0).
“We’ve still got six more opportunities to continue to grow, and obviously everybody being healthy is a major part of that,” Bell said.
He said his own season has been “tough mentally.” Injured at Temple, he missed the home opener against Buffalo, as well as the Oct. 3 game against Army. His 22 tackles are eighth on the team. He also has 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
“When you’re not out there, it kind of sucks not playing with your teammates,” he said. “But I’m just glad I’m back.”
Last year against Ohio State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel dropped into coverage on a zone blitz in the third quarter, intercepted Barrett and returned the ball 40 yards for a touchdown, as the Lions held OSU scoreless in the second half in rallying from 17-0 halftime deficit to force overtime. Bell had a career-high 13 tackles and a sack in the game.
Asked if he expects Shoop’s game plan to be just as intricate this year, Bell said, “I feel it depends on what the opposing team gives us, depending on their schemes and what we can do to battle them. … It all depends.”
Just as the Lions’ success figures to depend on the D.