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Is Ohio State pulling off a 2014-style bounceback again? Penn State can answer that, one way or the other

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The stats love the Buckeyes. But our eyes remember those last few big-game offensive performances. Against Penn State, the pressure’s on the home favorite.

Ohio State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Buckeyes have finished sixth or better in the AP poll for 11 of the last 15 seasons. They are 67-7 since Urban Meyer took over in 2012. They are one of the most proven commodities in sports.

Now they welcome Penn State to town. The Nittany Lions are in the middle of re-establishing themselves. They have finished ranked just once in the last seven seasons and were, at this point last year, just 19-14 in the James Franklin era.

Typically, a game like this is defined by the road underdog. What can that team do to puncture the home team’s shield? How can it steal some easy points and put pressure on the favorite?

Really, though, this game is more about the home favorites.

The last time the Buckeyes had the spotlight, they were getting run off of their home field by Oklahoma.

It’s been pretty easy to make comparisons to 2014 since then. That year, the Buckeyes played poorly in an early home loss to Virginia Tech, then, with the nation’s attention elsewhere, wrecked shop.

By the time most of the nation realized, “Holy cow, this team’s really elite,” the Buckeyes had already humiliated Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and vanquished title favorite Alabama in the CFP semifinals.

But if you were paying attention to the numbers, you could see the rise starting well before the conference championship. Ohio State was an S&P+ favorite in October that year.

They’re an early favorite this year, too.

Since the OU loss, the Buckeyes have won five games by a combined 266-56. They've averaged 7.9 yards per play and allowed 3.9. The competition has been questionable -- Army, UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland, and Nebraska -- but the "Ain't played nobody!" chorus was dismissing the Buckeyes three years ago, too.

The only ranked team 2014 Ohio State played between Virginia Tech and Wisconsin was a strong Michigan State that hosted the Buckeyes in early November. OSU ran away with a 49-37 victory.

This year’s midseason test is a bit stiffer.

Penn State enters at third in S&P+. The Nittany Lions are 7-0 and have won six games by at least 19 points. That one top-10 finish referenced above? It came last year, and they have won 16 of 17 since a shellacking at Michigan last season.

PSU is 10th in Off. S&P+ and ninth in Def. S&P+, and from a Five Factors standpoint, this is one of the most balanced teams in the country.

Penn State Five Factors stats

Football Study Hall stat profile

Of course, Ohio State isn’t exactly unbalanced.

Ohio State Five Factors stats

Football Study Hall stat profile

When you look further into the stats, three questions bubble to the surface. The answers will likely decide the game.

1. Is Ohio State’s pass defense ready?

Ohio State’s defense has played two teams ranked in the Passing S&P+ top 60.

  • Oklahoma currently ranks second. Baker Mayfield completed 27 of 35 passes for 386 yards, three touchdowns, and a brisk 198.1 passer rating.
  • Nebraska currently ranks 41st. Tanner Lee completed 23 of 38 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns, and a 144.9 rating.

Granted, the Huskers couldn’t even pretend to run, both of those touchdowns were in garbage time, and because of the Ohio State offense, the game was over quickly. But it still bears mentioning that the only two passing games with pulses had no trouble throwing. Plus, in the opener against Indiana (61st in Passing S&P+), the Hoosiers found pockets of success with favorable matchups between OSU defensive backs and Simmie Cobbs Jr.

Penn State ranks fifth in Passing S&P+, by the way. Against a Michigan defense that ranks second in the same category, Trace McSorley completed 17 of 26 passes for 282 yards, one touchdown, and one pick in the Nittany Lions’ romp over the Wolverines.

Oklahoma v Ohio State
OU’s Jeff Badet caught five balls for 82 yards against Ohio State.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

With sophomores playing a significant role (safety Jordan Fuller, corners Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield) the Ohio State secondary was easily the defense’s biggest question heading into the year. And considering Nebraska did some damage in OSU's most recent game, we can't simply write this off as an early-season thing.

Against everybody else, Ohio State’s secondary has been dominant, but it failed its biggest test of the season. And now it has to face the team that got its deep-ball groove back against Michigan.

Against Michigan, PSU found some of its best matchups were downfield. Quarterback Trace McSorley completed passes of 17, 23, 26, 27, 35, 36, and 42 yards; toss in a 69-yard Barkley run and a 23-yarder by McSorley, and it’s fair to conclude the Nittany Lions’ 42-13 win was powered by 2016-era big-play ability.

Denzel Ward, as good as he is, can only cover one guy. Can the Buckeyes prevent deep-ball success?

2. Is Penn State’s offensive line ready?

A first step toward defending the pass — force the opponent into passing situations. It’s a lot easier to defend second-and-9 than second-and-4, and if Ohio State is holding PSU star runner Saquon Barkley in check, Buckeyes linemen can do their secondary quite the service.

Nobody completely holds Barkley, your probable Heisman frontrunner, completely in check. Indiana held him to 56 yards on 20 carries but allowed 51 receiving yards and a kick return touchdown. Northwestern only allowed five of his 16 carries to gain five or more yards, but one was a 53-yard explosion that put the game away.

Still, you can render him inefficient.

In last year's odd, special teams-dominated PSU win over OSU, the Buckeyes kept the ball out of Barkley's hands by dominating on first downs. Barkley had three big runs — a 19-yarder and a 27-yarder in the first quarter, and a 37-yarder early in the fourth — but otherwise carried nine times for 16 yards.

PSU had 25 first-down snaps, but only seven gained more than five yards, and 14 gained zero or fewer. That also put McSorley (8-for-23 for 154 yards) in unfavorable downs and distances.

Nittany Lions offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has been tremendous at unveiling wrinkle after wrinkle to keep opponents off guard, but Ohio State still has the No. 1 defense in First Downs S&P+ and is No. 3 in Standard Downs S&P+. And though PSU’s line is better than it was last year, the Lions are still just 50th in Adj. Line Yards (OSU: second) and 117th in stuff rate (OSU: seventh). You can knock them off schedule.

3. Go long, J.T.

It was the malady that eventually ended Ohio State’s season: If you could slow down the Buckeyes’ run efficiency, you could render them helpless. They couldn’t throw downfield when they needed to.

In the final three games of the 2016 regular season, Barrett completed just 51 percent of his passes. That’s fine if you’re averaging about 20 yards per completion; Barrett averaged 7.7. His passer rating was well below 100.

Coordinator Kevin Wilson was brought in to fix this, and the raw results have been outstanding. For the season, Barrett is not only completing 67 percent of his passes, but he’s averaging 13.3 yards per completion. He has 21 TDs to one interception. Among power conference QBs, his 173.8 passer rating ranks behind only Mayfield and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph.

Ohio State’s running game is efficient as ever — the Buckeyes are second in Rushing S&P+ — and freshman J.K. Dobbins has emerged as a complement to Barrett in the backfield. Not including sacks (of which there have not been many), Barrett and Dobbins are averaging 23 carries per game and 7.4 yards per carry. That’s dominant.

Barrett is truly one of the most under-appreciated players in college football. Fans complain about his big-game performances but miss the fact that he helps assure OSU of minimal upset scares and the maximum number of big-game opportunities.

Adjusting for opponent, however, the Wilson-plus-Barrett results have been merely good. The passing game only ranks 33rd in Passing S&P+. And in his lone showcase game thus far, Barrett was a little too much like late-2016 J.T. for OSU fans’ comfort — against Oklahoma, he had a 54 percent completion rate, 9.6 yards per completion, and a 92.5 passer rating.

Like the Buckeyes’ pass defense, the pass offense still has to prove itself. And in pass defense, PSU has been elite: fifth in Passing S&P+, 10th in Passing Downs S&P+, 11th in passing success rate. Either Barrett shakes off the demons on Saturday afternoon or solidifies the “shaky in big games” rep. No pressure.

My S&P+ ratings are all-in on Ohio State.

Even adjusting for opponent, the Buckeyes have been so good since losing to Oklahoma that they are ranked first overall. PSU may be a healthy third, but OSU is still projected to win, 33-24.

The pressure is all on the Buckeyes, though. They spent their get-out-of-jail-free card in the second week of the season, and Penn State won its biggest game so far by 29 points. Ohio State lost its by 15.

If the numbers are right, this is the week the Buckeyes prove their title bona fides and secure control of the Big Ten East race. But if they play like anything less than the No. 1 team in the country, they might be virtually eliminated from the national and conference races before November.