If this season’s episode of Ohio State versus Penn State looks anything like the past two years, we’ll have another instant classic on our hands.
In 2016, Penn State knocked off Ohio State 24–21 during its annual “whiteout” in State College, Pa. The Nittany Lions’ defense sacked former Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett five times and James Franklin got a signature win in a game in which the opponent was favored by 20. In 2017, OSU got revenge at home with a 39–38 win. Despite finding itself in an early 14–0 hole, partly due to Saquon Barkley’s lethal 97-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff, Barrett led his team back to victory with 318 yards passing and 95 rushing.
Barrett and Barkley are gone. But this season’s annual Big Ten East rivalry game features the nation’s two most explosive offenses—literally ranked Nos. 1 and 2—and both defenses are susceptible to big plays. According to the Big Ten Network, this is the first Big Ten matchup featuring the top two scoring offenses in the nation since Nov. 10, 1962, when No. 8 Wisconsin beat No. 1 Northwestern 37–6.
As far as the grander picture of the season, it’s also a top-10 matchup with College Football Playoff implications at stake at night during a whiteout in Happy Valley. This is the kind of game that could come down to a turnover—neither of which these teams do very much—or maybe a special teams snafu.
Franklin’s offense lost Barkley and star tight end Mike Gesicki and it was assumed Penn State might take a step back in 2018. Instead, the Nittany Lions have the No. 1 overall scoring offense, averaging 55.5 points per game, and have scored 63 points in the last two.
Similar to recent years, Penn State leans on its running game. This time its junior Miles Sanders, who patiently waited his turn behind Barkley, who’s making moves. Sanders ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s comeback win over Illinois, and ranks second (seventh nationally) in the Big Ten in rushing yards behind Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, averaging 123.75 yards per game on nearly 7 yards per carry.
Earlier this week, Urban Meyer characterized Sanders as “really good.” He provides the biggest test for Ohio State’s defense as it learns how to cope without All-America pass rusher Nick Bosa, who is out indefinitely following surgery to repair a core muscle.
Senior quarterback Trace McSorley has been the mainstay of the PSU offense for a few years now. His numbers may not dominate stat sheets—he ranks seventh among Big Ten quarterbacks in passing yards per game (190.8) and eighth in pass efficiency—but he’s a playmaker. Last week, on the road against Illinois, Penn State found itself down 24–21 in the third quarter when McSorley and Sanders led a comeback of 42 unanswered points for a 63–24 victory.
Ohio State has shown its vulnerability against big plays. It allowed touchdown runs of 80- and 76-yards against Oregon State (despite crushing the Beavers 77–31) and one of 93 yards against TCU (Buckeyes still won 40–28). McSorley and Sanders will have success against this defense if they, too, can make big plays.
On the flip side, the Buckeyes have the second-most potent offense, scoring 54.5 points per game, and currently lead the conference in total offense, averaging 599 yards per game.
Saturday could be a Heisman Trophy moment for first-year starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who leads the Big Ten with 298.5 passing yards per game. He’s completing 75.7% of his passes (second-best in the country) and has a quarterback rating of 207.04, trailing only West Virginia’s Will Grier and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. He picked apart Tulane’s secondary last week (ranked No. 120 in the country) for 304 yards and five touchdowns. And in four games this season, he’s passed for 16 touchdowns to just one interception.
TCU, which has the best defense Ohio State has faced thus far, didn’t get enough pressure on Haskins, who went 24 of 38 for 344 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. He was sacked once and the Horned Frogs had just three QB hurries. Penn State’s defense ranks eighth in the Big Ten and No. 45 nationally in yards allowed per game, but has been successful in getting to the quarterback—granted, the opponents have been Appalachian State, Pittsburgh, Kent State and Illinois—and ranks No. 8 nationally in sacks (15) and No. 3 in tackles for loss (39).
Franklin had this to say about his defense after the Illinois game after giving up 411 yards on 5.4 yards per play:
“We have starters, and we have guys we’re rotating in, but I don’t know if anybody’s separated themselves from the pack,” Franklin said. “And I think that’s probably some of our challenges there. Having a guy who you know is running the defense and can be an eraser for you in terms of making plays. We’re not there yet.”
Whoever wins Saturday night has a clearer picture of what its run to the playoff looks like. Penn State’s biggest challenges ahead include a home game against Michigan State next week, then matchups with Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks in early November. Ohio State doesn’t have to play the Badgers during the regular season, and won’t face the Spartans or Wolverines until late November.
The game is guaranteed to be exciting in one of the best environments in college football. It will be high scoring with big-time plays. And the team with the fewest mistakes wins.