Penn State has played in the Horseshoe on the campus of The Ohio State University four times since joining the Big10. In all four games Penn State has lost and lost big. The 2002 Buckeyes enter the game ranked 6th in the nation, but most experts rate the Bucks as only small favorites in this game.
Most fans of these two teams know that Penn State has a pretty explosive offense. Most know the same could be said for Ohio State. The Buckeyes also have a lot of defense on their side. To find out what you might want to keep an eye on in this gridiron battle, and why the experts feel this will be a tight game, read on.
The Ohio State Offense
Due to an avalanche of press coverage, when most fans think of Ohio State this year they think of freshman tailback Maurice Clarett (left, AP/Terry Gilliam). Clarett is a dominating big back who can run through or by would-be tacklers. He goes about 6' 230lbs. and is very fast for a man that size, plus he has good patience in finding the right hole to run through.
Maurice Clarett set the Ohio State freshman record for 100-yard rushing games with his 133 yards on 30 carries against Wisconsin, his sixth 100-yard game of the season. He has 980 rushing yards on the season, 146 behind the freshman record of 1,126 rushing yards by Robert Smith in 1990.
Stopping Maurice Clarett will be anything but easy. Clarett is averaging over 6 yards a carry this year and Ohio State likes to pound him 35 times a game in their rushing attack.
Lydell Ross will get about 6 to 8 carries a game and Maurice Hall less than that, although his carries have come mostly in blowout situations after the game has been decided. I expect Clarett to get almost all of the carries in this game.
The key to Ohio State's winning ways this year has been the effectiveness of their running game led by Clarett, but their field general has been steady QB Craig Krenzel (right, Getty Images). Krenzel has been mainly unflappable and mistake-free this year. He has thrown only two interceptions, both in the first half against Cincinnati.
Krenzel's mistake-free play has him sitting atop the Big 10 pass efficiency leaders. Krenzel is 86 of 138 passing for 1275 yards on the year. That's a league leading 62.3% completion rate. He's also thrown 9 TD's against only the two interceptions thrown at Cincinnati. What is amazing is that he is averaging 9.24 yards per attempt, highest in the Big 10! For comparison's sake, Zack Mills is getting 8.57 yards per pass attempt, and that is very high by major college standards. The fact that Krenzel is getting even more than that with a 62% completion rate tells you that Ohio State is doing something right.
Normally, a QB with a 60% + completion rate would not be able to throw for that many yards per attempt, but Ohio State likes to throw downfield and with teams stacking the line to control Clarett he rarely has to throw into double coverage. When you can get quality WR's like those at Ohio State in man coverage you are going to complete a lot of passes.
Ohio State's running game has been so successful this year that they have run the ball twice for every pass they have attempted. They have been successful with that strategy and this has brought opposing safeties up towards the line of scrimmage to help stop the run. Because of that, teams have been susceptible to the longer throws, and Krenzel has been very efficient in making them pay.
All of the above about Krenzel noted, a typical game for him this year has been about 11 completions on 17 attempts for 159 yards and one TD before giving way to Scott McMullen to close out games. In the Wisconsin game, Krenzel played a full game and finished completing 12 of 19 passes for 204 yards and 2 TDs.
Some Ohio State fans believe Krenzel is right there with Zack Mills as one of the best QB's in the Big10. I can agree that he is efficient on the whole, but he's not anywhere near the playmaker Mills has become.
Consider this - despite Krenzel's very high pass efficiency numbers, OSU is still a meager 9th in passing yards per game. Now, I understand this will happen when you run the ball as much as Ohio State likes to run it, but something else tends to happen as well. Ohio State is converting 3rd downs at only a 39.58% rate, a mere 7th best in the Big10!
This is where the differences between a kid like Mills and a kid like Krenzel can show up. Mills' Penn State led offense is far and away the league leader in 3rd down conversion rate. Ohio State is 7th, and you can't blame that on the running game can you.
Michael Jenkins (left, AP/Brian Kersey) has caught 37 passes for 650 yards this year for a 17.6 per catch average. Chris Gamble has 20 receptions for 337 yards and a 16.9 per catch average. Drew Carter and Chris Vance are averaging one catch per game and both are getting about 15 yards per catch.
While all four of these WR's are getting some big yards per pass reception, it is Jenkins and Gamble that far and away are getting the workload at the wideout spot for Ohio State.
TE Ben Hartsock and Maurice Clarett at TB both get about 1 catch per game on average and they are getting 8 and 9 yards on their receptions respectively. Hartsock has proven to be a steady blocker this year while back up TE Ryan Hamby, a smaller TE, has not been as efficient in blocking situations.
The Ohio State offensive line has played extremely well this year for Coach Tressell. All 5 starters are juniors and all are over 300lbs. with Clarke being the biggest at 325lbs. But this unit has lacked depth and this may become an issue in our game this Saturday.
Ohio State has a very good starting unit of LT Ivan Douglas, LG Adrien Clarke, C Alex Stepanovich, RG Bryce Bishop, and RT Shane Olivea. All are juniors and all own letters, multiple letters in some cases, from past seasons. This is a unit that has gelled tremendously this year. However, a lack of depth may finally bite the Buckeyes in our game.
Ohio State has two former walk-ons, a former TE, and two true freshmen on their second unit. Due to some lopsided wins this year all of these players have seen action to date, but they don't play critical minutes against top flight teams. That will change Saturday as it has been reported than RT Shane Olivea had an emergency appendectomy this week and will miss the game. True freshmen Rob Sims, last seen 3 months ago in the Big33 game, will replace Olivea in the starting unit.
I do not expect any of the starters to come out of this game unless Sims really struggles, but I would not have any idea if that would happen until the game starts. I do expect to see Coach Bradley go after this kid in a big way though.
Keys when Ohio State has the ball
Ohio State, like everyone else in the top echelons of college football, has played a number of poor or average teams thus far. It's impossible to know just how good the Bucks are by judging those results. The Buckeyes toughest games were against Cincinnati and Wisconsin, but I would not count the Bearcats among the best teams Ohio State has played to date.
In my view, the three best teams Ohio State has played this year are Texas Tech, Washington St., and Wisconsin. In those three games the Buckeyes have averaged a whopping 52 rushing attempts against only 20 passing plays, and Ohio State has dominated the time of possession in all three of those games. If anyone tells you the Ohio State offense is predicated on anything other than ball control running game they should consider those numbers.
Here is the rub.
Four of the teams Ohio State has played this year are ranked 98th or lower among NCAA rush defenses. Cincinnati is rated 64th, but that comes against MAC competition.
Texas Tech is rated 84th against the run, Wisconsin 51st against the run, and Washington St., maybe the best of them, 28th against the run, but mostly against pass-happy Pac 10 competition.
Basically, the Cincinnati game notwithstanding, only these last three teams would have or should have been considered possible upset candidates against Ohio State. Ohio State has averaged 6 yards per rush attempt this year and they got exactly that against both Texas Tech and WSU. Neither of those teams was able to slow Ohio State's rushing attack.
Wisconsin fared much better in limiting the Bucks to almost exactly 4 yards per attempt. That is the primary reason Wisconson was in position to win that game in the fourth quarter. They slowed down that potent rushing attack and they stayed in the game. If not for two turnovers to Ohio State, the Badgers may have been able to win the game.
Ohio State has played two other close games this year, one against Cincinnatti where they had a slew of turnovers and the other against Northwestern where they gave away three fumbles.
Penn State has a better rush defense than any of those teams Ohio State has played to date. The Nittany Lion defense will absolutely need to slow down the OSU rushing game and do one of two things - slow the Ohio State rushing attack to 3.5 yards per carry or less OR limit them to around 4 yards per attempt and win the turnover battle.
Ohio State has good WR's and Penn State can't possibly take away everything in this game, so expect Ohio State to get their yards through the air. If you are a Penn State fan you want to force Ohio State out of their comfort zone and that means you want to stop the run and make them pass the ball. Penn State fans should want to see Craig Krenzel throwing 30 or more passes in this game.
If Krenzel has thrown only 20 passes when the game ends then Ohio State will have won this game. If, on the other hand, you force Ohio State to play from behind, or if you force them into more 3rd and long situations where that low 3rd down conversion rate comes into play, then you can beat Ohio State.
If there has been a trend I have noticed in the Ohio State rushing attack this year it is that they like to run the ball to the right behind Olivea and Bishop. With Olivea out and Sims in, watch and see what DC Tom Bradley tries to do to exploit the situation. Penn State is not the kind of team that will overplay one side or the other, but this is a match up where I'd like to see some pressure brought to bear on the OSU O-Line.
My guess is he will try and get Michael Haynes on Sims. Ohio State would likely try and protect Sims with Ben Hartsock lined up to the his side most of the day. Ohio State may also try to throw some misdirection or a screen pass at Penn State should Bradley do as I suggest and go hard at Sims.
OSU is averaging 426 total yards per game (PSU is at 440 yards per game).
The Ohio State Specialty Teams
Does every team in the Big10 have great kickers or does it just seem that way? Sophomore kicker Mike Nugent has now made an Ohio State record 17-consecutive field goals, with two vs. Wisconsin. Nugent's streak spans 10 games over two seasons and he is 16 of 16 on FG's this year with 7 of 7 coming between 40 and 49 yards.
Punter Andy Groom is leading the Big10 in net punting average. His 74-yard punt in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin last week was a career long. So, not only can Groom hit it far, he can also do so in clutch situations.
Ohio State has decent return teams, but they have not really done anything spectacular to date.
The Ohio State Defense
Just as the key to the Ohio State offense is the terrific rushing attack led by Maurice Clarett, the key to the Ohio State defense is their stellar run defense. Ohio State has an athletic front seven that has given up only 82 yards per game on the ground this year.
The front four is anchored by 289lbs. Jr. DT Tim Anderson (left, Getty Images), 250lbs Jr. DE Will Smith, 271lbs. Jr. DE Darrion Scott, and 265lbs. Sr. DT Kenny Peterson. This unit has not generated the number of sacks the PSU front four has this year, but they did garner 5 against Wisconsin with (I believe) virtually all of them coming against Brooks Bollinger in the first half.
Will Smith and Darrion Scott have both played thru some injuries this year and Smith is still not 100% just yet and is listed as probable for this game. Back up DE's, 6'7" 250lbs. Soph. Simon Fraser and 6'3" 245lbs. true Freshman Mike Kudla have seen plenty of action.
The Ohio State LB corps may have suffered a blow in the UW game last week when super quick 6'1" 220lbs. wsOLB Cie Grant had to leave the game with what has been reported as some sort of high ankle sprain. He is listed as questionable for this game. He'll be replaced by 230lbs. True Freshman A.J. Hawk. Hawk has actually played very well this year and I don't really expect much drop off from the level of play I'd expect from Grant. He is not quite as fast as Grant, but he has tremendous instincts and takes great angles to the ball. In short, he's a tremendous LB for a true freshman.
Robert Reynolds is the ssOLB at 6'3" 234lbs. 6'5" 245lbs. Sr. Matt Wilhelm (right, Getty Images) is at MLB and he is up for a plethora of major post season defensive awards. I consider Wilhelm to be a major impact type player.
Ohio State will play So. Dustin Fox at one corner and freshman E.J. Underwood at the other. Underwood has two career starts now. He is a bit quicker and faster than Fox but he's also very inexperienced.
Ohio State will use seniors Donnie Nickie and Mike Doss (left, Getty Images) as free safety and strong safety respectively. Doss is an All-American candidate at strong safety.
I spoke about WR Chris Gamble when talking about the Ohio State offense, but I need to speak about him here as well as he has played the role of nickel back in the Ohio State secondary this year. Gamble has two interceptions this year.
Expect to see some substitution on the OSU defensive line in this game. I think there will be some substitution elsewhere in this game, just not to any significant degree.
Keys when Ohio State is on Defense
Kent State likes to run the ball, but they are a very poor low level MAC team that had no prayer of competing against OSU. Every other team Ohio State has played is pass happy and none of them are any good at running the ball at all.
Texas Tech and WSU are 100th and 84th respectively in Div.1 rush offense. Northwestern is 58th in rushing and has been playing poorly, yet they kept their game with Ohio State close. They needed 3 OSU fumbles though.
The Wisconsin we saw a few weeks ago is the one team Ohio State has played is big enough, tough enough, and willing enough to run the ball consistently. The Badgers are 51rst among NCAA teams in rush offense. Interestingly enough, while Ohio State was giving up only about 75 yards per game rushing prior to the Wisconsin game the Badgers hung 180 yards rushing on them.
Penn State runs the ball a lot better than anyone Ohio State has faced this year. Our rushing attack is a big step up for the Ohio State defense in this game. Penn State also probably throws the ball better than anyone the Buckeyes have played. Oh sure, Texas Tech and WSU both throw the ball all day long from the spread, but neither had the ability to run the ball.
TT and WSU both run a myriad of short passes, but they don't spread the defense vertically nearly as well as Penn State does. That is part of the reason they could not stretch Ohio State's defense vertically and why they could not run the ball effectively on the Bucks.
The question is whether or not Penn State can pass the ball well enough to stretch Ohio State vertically. Can Penn State get Ohio State back on their collective heels? As well as Penn State throws the ball, and as young as that Ohio State secondary looks to me, my guess is they can do just that.
Penn State easily runs the best offense Ohio State has seen this year. The Buckeyes will be forced to try and stop the Mills led passing attack and I think they will need to commit to playing the nickel to do that. While the Buckeyes like to blitz SS Mike Doss, Mills is rarely ever hit by a safety because he knows they are not typically going to be blocked and he is excellent with his check offs and will get rid of the ball before a safety can get to him. Doss is not the best cover man in zone defense either.
If OSU tries to crowd the line to stop Larry Johnson, Mills will back them up. He's done that to every team he's faced in his career and I don't expect Ohio State to be any different. If they play nickel all day Mills will still get yards because he's such an effective passer.
How many yards can Mills get in the air against a young OSU secondary? Other passing teams haven't gotten enough and Mills will have to do better to stretch that defense out. I think Mills, Bryant Johnson, and Tony Johnson will do just that.
Then the key will be how many yards Larry Johnson can get after Mills has stretched Ohio State out.
In my opinion, the team that is able to convert more third downs will win this game. For Penn State to win that battle I do not believe they will have to out gain Ohio State on the ground, but they will have to be very close in rushing yardage. Because Penn State has been so good at converting 3rd downs this year, the Nittany Lions have punted the ball fewer times than any team in the league this year. We need to see that trend continue in this game with Ohio State.
These two teams both have a lot to play for. Like in other big games this year, the team that wants this the most is going to win this game.