Counter Intel: Things to Know About Penn State Before Ohio State Heads to Happy Valley

As the Buckeyes prepare for perhaps their biggest game of the year, here's what you need to know about the Penn State Nittany Lions.
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For the ninth time in the 108-year history of the Penn State vs. Ohio State series, the two teams will play under the lights.

With ABC nationally televising the game and the two College Football Playoff hopefuls meeting in Week 2 of the delayed-start season, the stage has set itself.

Penn State has not won a Big Ten championship since 2016 (Ohio State has won the last three). That was also the same year the Nittany Lions last beat Ohio State. After losing to Indiana on Saturday, they will need to defeat the Buckeyes on Saturday if they want an attempt to unseat OSU from the conference throne in 2020.

With that said, here are some things you need to know about Penn State before Saturday's big showdown.

Their Playoff Aspirations Took a Big Hit

Penn State has been on the cusp of reaching the College Football Playoff several times. The chance to erase that narrative this year is suddenly bleak.

Unranked Indiana defeated Penn State (ranked No. 9 at the time) in overtime, 36-35, on Oct. 24. Last Saturday’s loss was only the second time in the James Franklin era that they lost their first conference matchup of the season.

As seen several times before, one-loss conference championship teams can be given a berth to the playoff; which makes the implications of this Saturday’s game against Ohio State that much more important.

For Penn State to keep its playoff hopes alive, this Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes will be a must-win. The oddsmakers have already labeled the Nittany Lions as a 12.5-point underdog.

Penn State's Two Best Players are Unavailable

The Nittany Lions will be without their two best players on Saturday night against Ohio State.

Starting running back Journey Brown was diagnosed with an undisclosed medical condition that was discovered in the offseason. Reports indicate the diagnosis could keep him sidelined for all of 2020.

Last season, Brown was the team’s leading rusher (890 yards and 12 touchdowns). His 6.89 yards per carry in 2019 ranks fifth all-time in team history. Brown capped off the final game of his redshirt sophomore year with a record 202 rushing yards in the Cotton Bowl against Memphis.

On the defensive side of the ball, star junior linebacker Micah Parsons opted-out of the 2020 season to prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. In 2019, Parsons was a consensus All-American as a sophomore and led the team in tackles (109), as well as forced fumbles (4).

Both absences will surely be felt on Saturday.

Kirk Ciarrocca is The New Offensive Coordinator

If Ciarrocca’s name seems familiar, that is not a surprise. From 2017-19, Ciarrocca was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator. He came to State College, Pennsylvania, after leading the Gophers to their third-highest scoring offense in the program’s history.

In his Penn State debut against Indiana, the Nittany Lions totaled 488 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per play. It was a highly respectable debut, but still not good enough to defeat the Hoosiers.

Former offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne accepted the head coaching position with Old Dominion in December of 2019. Under his direction, the Nittany Lions had six players earn Big Ten honors last year.

The Final Run Down

Penn State returned 17 starters from 2019, 10 of which were on the offensive side of the ball; none of them is more important than starting quarterback Sean Clifford.

In 2019, his first season as the starter, Clifford threw 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions on 2,654 yards passing. In Week 1 against Indiana, Clifford was 24-of-35 for 238 yards and three touchdown passes, but also threw two interceptions. Clifford also led the team in rushing with 119 rushing yards and added a touchdown.

Junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson seems to be the replacement for K.J. Hamler, who was drafted No. 46 overall by the Denver Broncos this year. In Week 1, Clifford connected with Dotson four times for 94 yards and a touchdown. Fellow junior tight end Pat Freiermuth, who was named to the Biletnikoff (outstanding receiver) and Mackey Award (tight end receiver) watch lists, and Clifford have great chemistry. Against Indiana, Freiermuth hauled in seven catches for 60 yards and a score.

On defense, the Nittany Lions are led by defensive end Shaka Toney and safety Lamont Wade, who were both named to award watch lists at their respective positions. Last week, Toney led the team in tackles (7) and sacks (2) against Indiana. Wade had two takeaways against the Hoosiers, in the form of an interception and fumble recovery.

Ohio State is 20-15 all-time against Penn State. The Buckeyes have won seven of the last eight meetings. Their lone loss during that period was on Oct. 22, 2016, when the Nittany Lions upset No. 2 Ohio State at Beaver Stadium, 24-21.