How Penn State Can Beat Ohio State

Penn State is a 12-point home underdog to the No. 3 Buckeyes. Here's how the Lions can win the game.
Publish date:

Penn State is a 12-point underdog to Ohio State, the largest home spread the team has faced since the 2016 season. You remember what happened then, when the Lions were a 17.5-point underdog to the Buckeyes.

No. 3 Ohio State brings a formidable, but not invincible, roster to Beaver Stadium on Saturday night. Though the Whiteout atmosphere will be different, the Lions still should get a modest boost from playing at home. The rest is up to them, and these are the flashpoints.

It starts with Sean Clifford

The Penn State quarterback this week said he and his teammates were "pissed off" with the mistakes they made against Indiana. In particular, three first-half turnovers (two of which were Clifford interceptions) made much of the difference.

Clifford obviously can't repeat those breakdowns. What's more, he has to force Penn State's offense to challenge Ohio State downfield: Curtail his antsy feet in the pocket, anticipate receiver routes and connect with them.

Penn State converted just two pass plays longer than 20 yards, one of which produced a 60-yard touchdown to Jahan Dotson. Otherwise, the Lions didn't try to stretch the field, which Indiana certainly forced and Ohio State certainly noticed. If the Buckeyes shut down Penn State's receivers and force Clifford to scramble again, they'll win easily.

The cornerbacks must defend their islands

Penn State's Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr. delivered some of the defense's best play against Indiana, even on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 60 yards until the fourth.

Ohio State's offense is substantially more explosive, because Justin Fields possesses the nation's best combination of mobility and accuracy. By trusting their corners, the Lions can avoid some of the zone-coverage situations that Fields picks apart. Perhaps they also can close his run gaps and defend the scrambles.

It's unlikely Ohio State coach Ryan Day wants to subject Fields to a 20-rush game against hitters like Jayson Oweh, Brandon Smith and Lamont Wade. So he's probably going to throw, which Penn State might be best prepared to defend.

"I can speak for a lot of defensive linemen," Oweh said, "it's not fun playing a guy that knows how to move in the pocket and knows how to move at the right time."

Take the ball out of Fields' hands

This is a two-fold mission. Penn State might be inclined to dare the Buckeyes to run by keying on a pass-oriented defense with six backs and a spy on Fields. Ohio State's backfield wasn't the highlight of its win over Nebraska.

On the flip side, Penn State punter Jordan Stout shouldn't see the field more than four times, and when he does he should be punting inside the 10-yard line. Clifford needs to convert first downs, his changing backfield needs to mature quickly and coach James Franklin might invest in a few fourth-and-short attempts.

This is where 230-pound freshman running back Keyvone Lee could generate some buzz. Lee showed a grasp for gaining positive yardage, something Noah Cain did well, and appeared to be the Lions' best inside runner.

Make this game about the under

Penn State doesn't beat Ohio State often (once under Franklin and four times since 2005) but all four wins have this in common: they hit the under, according to the database. The score has topped 40 points only once in those wins (Penn State 24-21 in 2016). 

This seems obvious, but Penn State can't win a race-to-40 against this Ohio State offense. Their offenses aren't comparable. So the Lions' best chance is to muck this into a defensive struggle, force Fields into a turnover (he did lose five fumbles last season) and batter the clock. 

 Get the latest Penn State news by joining the community. Click "Follow" at the top right of our AllPennState page. Mobile users click the notification bell. And please follow AllPennState on Twitter @MarkWogenrich.