COLUMBUS, Ohio — One week after a tough test, there’s no rest for the weary.
Ohio State will follow its 30-23 overtime win at Wisconsin with a road trip to Penn State to take on the 4-2 Nittany Lions (8 p.m. ET, TV: ABC). Although Ohio State enters as a nearly three-touchdown favorite, this will serve as Penn State’s annual White Out game and promises to deliver an electric atmosphere.
There are a number of factors that will come into play at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, but here are five keys to watch for:
1. The first quarter
Ohio State’s first-quarter struggles continued, as the Buckeyes trailed Wisconsin 10-3 after 15 minutes. That’s now four times in five games that Ohio State has failed to seize control of a game during the opening period.
That might not be a big deal against Tulsa, Rutgers or Indiana, but it very well could have cost the Buckeyes at a place like Wisconsin. The same will be true this week when the Buckeyes travel to Happy Valley and play in front of the most hostile environment they’ll see all season.
2. Clean play
Along those same lines, it will be crucial for the Buckeyes to avoid turning it over. Ohio State has been good for at least one mind-numbing mistake just about every game this season — even against Bowling Green, it didn’t take more than a couple of plays — and that’s how overmatched teams stay in the game longer.
Ohio State likely wouldn’t have been in overtime against Wisconsin if quarterback J.T. Barrett hadn’t let a pass slip during the only 3-minute period it rained all game long. A would-be touchdown turned into an interception in the end zone, and the Buckeyes came away with no points. Even though Ohio State’s talent has shown it can overcome pretty much anything, little things like that always have a chance to haunt on the road.
3. Stopping the run
Ohio State is well-acquainted with PSU running back Saquon Barkley, who sliced up the Buckeyes for 194 yards last season. Barkley can hurt the Buckeyes in two different ways, either by breaking free for a quick score or steadily pounding the defense on a long drive that keeps the ball out of J.T. Barrett’s hands and cuts down on the number of Ohio State’s possessions.
In the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday, Meyer referred to Barkley as “the kingpin” of the offense and said he was a phenomenal player. How well the Buckeyes are able to rein him in will play a big role in determining the outcome.
4. Aerial attack
This will be arguably the best group of receivers Ohio State has faced all season, and Penn State wideouts Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton will provide a big challenge for the OSU defensive backs. Hamilton memorably tormented the Buckeyes in OSU’s overtime win in 2014, catching 14 passes for 126 yards.
Given that the Buckeyes are fourth nationally in passing efficiency defense and sixth in passing yards allowed, they’re well-equipped for the task at hand, but that doesn’t make the aforementioned wideouts any less of a threat.
5. Back to the backfield
Barrett nearly had more carries against Wisconsin than running back Mike Weber and H-back Curtis Samuel combined, which is less than ideal. The junior quarterback is a fine scrambler, but Ohio State needs to limit his hits and also give the ball to its best options in the backfield. Both Weber and Samuel should be getting more like 15 carries apiece than 10. Those 10 extra handoffs that go to a running back instead of staying with Barrett are 10 plays that entrust the ball with a bigger home-run threat.
Just look at these averages: