Saturday's marquee matchup between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Penn State Nittany Lions will have the attention of most college football fans across the country. Even though the Nittany Lions won't be at full strength without Journey Brown and Micah Parsons, this is still a game has major playoff implications at stake - and considering that Penn State lost its opener at Indiana to start the season, this is a must win for them if they have any hope of making their first College Football Playoff appearance.
Here are my three keys and a prediction for this week's game:
Win the Turnover Battle
It might seem like a fairly obvious key most games, but it's especially important for the Buckeyes this weekend. Five of the last nine meetings between Ohio State and Penn State have been decided by seven points or less. Included in those games has been an overtime contest (2014), a three-point PSU win in 2016 and back-to-back one-point wins for Ohio State in 2017 and 2018.
Last year, Ohio State lost three fumbles, two of which turned into 10 points by the 4-minute mark of the third quarter. If the Buckeyes don't take care of the football, Happy Valley can be one of the hardest places in America to win a game (even though there won't be a white out this year).
Ignore the "Noise"
I don't mean the literal noise (or lack thereof) inside the stadium - I'm referring to all of the voices and news headlines outside the program. This has been a loud week in college football, from the Wisconsin CoVID-19 outbreak and subsequent game with Nebraska game being cancelled, to Nebraska being denied a chance to play a non-conference opponent, to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence testing positive for CoVID ... if the Buckeyes aren't focused against a hungry and determined Penn State team, they could come up short on the road.
I don't think that will happen, but the expectations surrounding this team are crazy high and they need to make sure they're not playing much attention to what's being said about them outside the walls of the Woody Hayes center.
Speed up Sean Clifford's Clock
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has a very tall task in front of him, but he was awfully confident this week when he said "I didn't come here to hang with Ohio State, I came here to beat Ohio State." Despite losing last week, he got off to a good start personally.
The Nittany Lions have talented running backs, even if their current stable is fairly unproven. I think they are going to try and establish Devyn Ford on the ground early in the game since Ohio State's run defense got off to a slow start in Week 1. But when it's time for Clifford to try making plays through the air, the Buckeyes have to get a good pass rush on him and speed up his decision-making process. There is as much pressure on the defensive line this weekend as there is on the secondary. Ohio State has to make Clifford uncomfortable. He is a pretty mobile, versatile player and it will take a significant effort to throw him off his rhythm
Ohio State 38, Penn State 20
By this point, the Buckeyes know what to expect when they go to Beaver Stadium. I truly believe the lack of a crowd is going to give Ohio State an edge. That place is BANANAS when they have 110,000 people fired up and ready to go. Penn State is going to miss that home field advantage.
Even with it, I'm not sure it would be enough. Ohio State is the better team this year, especially without Parsons on the field defensively. The Nittany Lions have a great safety in Lamont Wade and an elite pass rusher in Shaka Toney, but Parsons is the best defensive player in the conference and he's the kind of guy that can make a big difference in games like this one. I expect a big game through the air again for Justin Fields and I think the Buckeyes win a semi-comfortable game.
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