The fate of the Big Ten East may very well be decided on Saturday afternoon when the No. 2 Penn State Nittany Lions (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) come calling the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-1, 4-0) at Ohio Stadium. The game’s cup runneth over with storylines – OSU seeks revenge for last seasons’ loss, James Franklin seeks to stake his claim as the conference’s premiere head coach, both clubs long for a College Football Playoff Berth. We are in for a good one this week.
Ohio State leads the all-time series 17-14. Despite Penn State’s 24-21 victory last season, the Bucks have won four of the past five contests. OSU leads 15-8 since the Nittanies joined the Big Ten in 1993. PSU hasn’t won in Columbus since November 19, 2011 – coincidentally my final home game as a student.
Penn State entered last season with muted expectations that seemed justified when they dropped a 49-10 decision to Michigan. The Lions then caught fire finishing the conference schedule with an 8-1 record and winning the division thanks to a friendly tiebreaker. Penn State bounced Wisconsin in the Big Ten Title Game to win their first conference crown since 2008. The CFP committee snubbed them in favor of Ohio State, and Penn State was relegated a heartbreaking 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to USC.
The 2017 Nittanies have proven that last year was no fluke. This may be the most complete team in the conference, and figures to be a bigger challenge than Oklahoma was in September. Penn State swept through a non-conference offering of Akron, Pittsburgh, and Georgia State. Franklin’s club barely escaped Iowa city with a 21-19 win, but since then it has been a romp over Indiana, Northwestern, and No. 19 Michigan. On aggregate, Penn State has outscored their opponents 280-81.
Redshirt junior quarterback Trace McSorley leads the offense with 147-of-220 passing for 1,879 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. McSorley has proven equally dangerous on the ground where he has racked up 254 yards and seven touchdowns. The unquestioned star of the offense, however, is junior Saquon Barkley. The Whitehall, PA native has rushed 117 times for 757 yards (6.5 yards/touch) and eight touchdowns. He is big, fast, elusive, explosive, and dangerous. Ohio State’s defensive line will be tested all day, and Barkley offers a challenge the line has not yet seen this season. Barkley’s wave appears to be cresting at the right time as he at times reminds fans of Ezekiel Elliott circa 2014. Browns fans will enjoy watching him this season as he may very well be wearing an orange helmet next season. It is all but assured he will turn pro in 2018. On top of everything, Barkley has 32 receptions for 448 yards and three scores. Senior DeSean Hamilton has 28 receptions for 481 yards and four scores. Senior tight end Mike Gesicki makes his share of catches too with 24 receptions, 228 yards, and four TD’s.
While Penn State dispatched Michigan, Ohio State was busy watching film. Perhaps the Buckeyes’ best advantage on Saturday may be the schedule. Ohio State enjoyed a bye last week which gives the players an extra week to rest and prepare for their biggest home game of the year. Under Urban Meyer’s tutelage Ohio State is a perfect 5-0 the game after a bye.
Since their loss to Oklahoma, Ohio State has played like a team reborn. The school has rattled off five straight victories including three against conference foes. Whether in Columbus, Piscataway, or Lincoln the Bucks have appeared unflappable in any circumstance. With rain featuring prominently in the forecast, the Scarlet and Gray may lean heavily on their running backs which has proven effective so far in 2017. True freshman J.K. Dobbins continues to deliver on the ground with 100 carries, 775 yards, and five touchdowns. Quarterback J.T. Barrett remains a viable running threat as his 359 yards and five scores demonstrate. Lastly Mike Weber has 48 attempts for 227 yards; he has crossed the goal line four times. If the rains arrive as predicted, don’t be surprsied if the running backs are called upon to carry the offense.
The Athletics Department revealed the Bucks’ all-gray uniforms for Saturday’s game. They are…something. The monochromatic look runs throughout the uniform ending only with the scarlet block O at the collar’s center and the blood-red buckeye leaves adorning the helmet.
After the Oklahoma loss, I detailed what the Buckeyes would need to do to win the division, conference, and get a chance at the playoff. The most important element of that plan is winning out. Penn State offers the stiffest test yet for the Buckeyes. They are a complete team with playmakers across the board. Ohio State is no pushover, mind you, but they will need to play near flawless football to go toe-to-toe with the Lions. That means few penalties and no turnovers. OSU still controls its own destiny, but so does PSU. So what’s it going to be – revenge or a rerun?