COLUMBUS, Ohio — Another big test awaits Ohio State when the Buckeyes travel to Happy Valley to face Penn State on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) are unranked but have shown improvement throughout the season and will have the backing of one of college football’s best atmospheres when they host the second-ranked Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten).
To learn more about Ohio State’s seventh opponent of the season, we’ve turned to Ben Jones of StateCollege.com to get the Penn State point of view. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ben_Jones88 and you can read his work here.
Q: How has the departure of Christian Hackenberg as well as some staff changes affected the style and success of the offense?
Jones: I don’t think that the actual departure of Hackenberg required a change in the style Penn State plays as much as it allowed James Franklin to run the kind of RPO attack that he had wanted to all along. Franklin hasn’t strictly speaking stuck to a single style of play throughout his coaching career but by and large it has been more of what Penn State is doing this year than the previous two. John Donovan wasn’t the guy to run that kind of offense and Joe Moorhead has been just about perfect for jump-starting an offense that has plenty of talented players but seemingly no good idea how to use them — 30.5 points per game is hard to argue with, even if it has come against generally average teams. So Hackenberg’s departure has certainly opened the door to play a more spread style of offense, but Penn State was going to get that direction sooner rather than later anyway.
Q: In what areas or at what positions does Penn State have a chance to have success and cause problems for Ohio State?
Jones: I think any time you have a player like Saquon Barkley you’re in a position to make plays that you otherwise shouldn’t be able to. Last year’s performance against Ohio State and really his overall numbers against Michigan this year go to show that he’s capable of doing it all on his own. Certainly you have to be more than a one-dimensional offense to beat Ohio State but Barkley is one of the most talented players in the country so any kind of success is going to come from him. Aside from Barkley the work Trace McSorley has done at quarterback makes for an intriguing duo of players on that side of the ball. For the most part he hasn’t had many bad decisions to regret this season and he’ll have to continue that kind of mental game to play well on Saturday. Defensively it just depends who is healthy but Grant Haley and Marcus Allen are always good for an interception or two if given the chance.
Q: How do Penn State fans feel about James Franklin? Has it shifted from when he first took over?
Jones: It really has been a process, Franklin is/was an exciting high-caliber hire that brought a lot of hype with him. I think that whenever you are a hyped-up hire that you’re almost bound to come up short of the expectations that follow. To his credit he has, this year included, beat just about everyone he was expected to. Given Penn State’s sanction situation the past two years and the injuries that have come up it’s hard to really say that Penn State ought to be 3-4 wins better under Franklin than they have been. Sure, things could look better at times, but that’s as much circumstance as it is Franklin. To answer your question, though, I think Franklin’s popularity has slipped since he was hired, but it was bound to take a hit. Equally true, I think, winning against Maryland and Minnesota in spite of injuries has won a lot of people over again.
Q: What are the expectations around the program and/or fan base both for this game and the rest of the season as a whole?
Jones: With Iowa and Michigan State struggling and Rutgers, Purdue and Indiana left on the schedule I think most fans are hoping that an 8-9 win season is in the cards. Generally speaking, though, the injuries on the defensive side of the ball have lowered most expectations simply because damn near everyone has been hurt at some point. If Penn State can win the three games against the lower tier and beat Iowa or Michigan State (both at Beaver Stadium) I think that will go along way toward the program taking the next step forward.
Q: What do you expect the atmosphere to be like at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night?
Jones: I’ve admittedly been to so many Penn State games that I often forget how unique a White Out is to see. I think if Penn State was a bit better and a bit healthier there would be more excitement in the stands but even with a reasonable expectation of a loss I fully imagine the crowd to be as loud as ever when the game finally starts. How long the game is close will determine how long that atmosphere lasts. The White Out is as impressive a sight as you can see in college football, and I anticipate it will live up to the hype yet again.
What’s your prediction?
Q: The joke in the press box each week has been how much everyone has no idea what to expect. I wouldn’t be surprised if this game is within 10 points for much of the first two quarters and some of the third. But unless Ohio State makes mistakes I don’t think Penn State is going to be able to make enough plays on its own to win this game. I think the final score will be pretty similar to last year and probably a back-end heavy affair for Ohio State. So 21-10 at the half and 38-17 at the end.