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Down 12, Ohio State pulls off 2 perfect drives to win at Penn State

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For the second straight year, the Buckeyes found themselves down double digits, then stormed back to beat the Nittany Lions.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Final

Some quick stats after a stunning end:

  • Total yards: PSU 492, OSU 389
  • Yards per play: PSU 6.5, OSU 5.1
  • First downs: PSU 22, OSU 21
  • PSU’s Trace McSorley: 16-for-32 passing for 286 yards, two touchdowns; 21 non-sack carries for 193 yards
  • OSU’s Dwayne Haskins: 22-for-39 passing for 270 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception
  • PSU’s Miles Sanders: 16 carries for 43 yards and a touchdown, two catches for two yards
  • OSU’s JK Dobbins and Mike Weber: 26 carries for 108 yards, three catches for 66 yards and a TD

Penn State controlled the entire game, out-gaining the Buckeyes by 103 yards and rendering them almost entirely inefficient until the final two drives. But with the game on the line, the Buckeyes leaned on a brilliant receiving corps and blocked perfectly, and PSU called an RPO on fourth-and-5.

Fourth Quarter

0:00

Ohio State kneels out the game, and that’s that. OSU 27, PSU 26.

1:16

A year ago, Penn State blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead, and Trace McSorley couldn’t save the day. He gets a second opportunity.

  • First-and-10 from the PSU 25: McSorley finds Freiermuth for 27 yards up the seam.
  • First-and-10 from the OSU 48: Young sacks McSorley for a loss of four, nearly grabbing the face mask but avoiding it.
  • Second-and-14 from the PSU 48: McSorley goes deep to Polk, who can’t bring it in.
  • Third-and-14 from the PSU 48: McSorley gains nine yards on a keeper, and PSU calls timeout with 1:22 left. Then OSU calls timeout. And then Penn State calls another timeout. Sheesh. Both teams have one left.
  • Fourth-and-5 from the OSU 43: WHAT? RPO hand-off to Sanders, and he gets stuffed. After all that, they do ... that. Massively underwhelming play-call, and Ohio State’s gonna win. OSU 27, PSU 26.

2:03

TOUCHDOWN. Another perfect Ohio State screen. Penn State doesn’t go for an all-out blitz, but a screen to Dobbins is so well-blocked that it still gains 35 yards.

Then Dobbins plows up the middle for seven yards. In two plays, OSU is nearly to midfield. Haskins throws incomplete between two receivers, but on third-and-3, Weber goes off right tackle for 11 yards to the PSU 43. Then Campbell takes a screen and bounces around for another 14 yards. OSU’s inside the 30, and PSU looks gassed.

Haskins can’t hit Campbell on a crossing route, then Dobbins gains five yards. It’s third-and-5 as the clock ticks toward two minutes, and Haskins fires quickly to Hill on the right sideline. He takes a great block, makes one guy miss, and struts 24 yards for the go-ahead score. Eight plays, 96 yards. Damn.

The two-point conversion is a disaster: Ohio State calls timeout after a delay of game penalty, then throws an incomplete pass. Still, the Buckeyes looked dead in the water, then drove 171 yards and scored twice in 11 plays to take the lead. Mercy. OSU 27, PSU 26.

4:35

Somehow, Ohio State still isn’t shadowing McSorley. He sends everyone deep and scrambles for 13 yards — that’s 18 non-sack carries for 174 yards — and OSU’s Dre’Mont Jones limps off the field. Another McSorley carry gains nothing but nets another 15 yards on a face mask penalty. First down at the OSU 42.

McSorley, going for the jugular, gets penalized for an illegal forward pass, then bulls up the middle again for nine yards to the 37. On third-and-6, McSorley avoids pressure but can’t connect with Hippenhammer. Still not in field goal range, PSU takes a delay of game penalty and sends out Gillikin, whose punt is downed at the 4. Nice punt. PSU 26, OSU 21.

6:42

TOUCHDOWN. After a couple of short passes, Haskins goes deep to Austin Mack and draws a pass interference penalty. And then Victor makes a ridiculous play. Haskins fires high to him, but he reels it in, shakes his defender loose, then weaves through five more defenders for a 47-yard score.

Wow. This game is very much not over. PSU 26, OSU 21.

8:00

TOUCHDOWN. McSorley starts PSU’s drive with a nice play, stepping up into the pocket like he’s going to scramble again and then hitting Hippenhammer for 21 yards to the Buckeye 31. McSorley loses one on a keeper, then lobs a ball to Johnson down the left sideline. He can’t quite reel it in, though. On third-and-11, with PSU not yet in field goal range, it’s another QB draw, and it works. The left side opens up, and he runs behind Johnson on the perimeter for 19 to the OSU 13. Now they’re in field goal range.

Never mind the field goal. McSorley explodes up the middle once more and plows through a tackle to about the one-foot line. It’s called a touchdown but called back after replay review. But no worries: Sanders rides a host of blockers into the end zone on the next play.

What a physical drive from the Nittany Lions (mostly McSorley) there. The two-point conversion attempt fails, but PSU’s up 12. PSU 26, OSU 14.

10:18

With the crowd super-loud again, Ohio State quiets them briefly with an 18-yard end around to Campbell. Two Dobbins carries gain just four yards, then a pass to Campbell over the middle gains 5.5 yards. On fourth-and-a-foot from the PSU 48, Penn State blows up both Dobbins (who doesn’t get the ball) and Haskins (who does). Turnover on downs. Huge stop. PSU 20, OSU 14.

12:22

Another McSorley scramble gains 10 yards to start the drive — he’s got 111 rushing yards tonight, 120 without sacks — then Sanders is corralled for two yards. He’s had a much less impressive night. Borland sacks McSorley, and just like that, it’s third-and-long again. But McSorley buys just enough time to lob a ball to an open Hamler downfield. The freshman reels in the ball for a 36-yard gain and then takes a nasty shoulder-to-helmet hit from Isaiah Pryor while in a defenseless position. He appears to be knocked unconscious, and Hamler is ejected for targeting. Penn State is to the OSU 15, but Hamler’s done for the night.

This time, Penn State finishes. A mean McSorley run gains 13 yards, then he throws a lob into the end zone to Freiermuth, another freshman, who draws pass interference and still posts up and reels in the touchdown. The Nittany Lions choose not to go for 2, but they’re up again. PSU 20, OSU 14.

14:44

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Buckeyes can’t convert on third-and-long, and Chrisman booms a big punt. Penn State will start at its 27, still down one. OSU 14, PSU 13.

Third Quarter

0:00

After an incomplete deep ball and a one-yard loss for Weber, the third quarter ends with OSU facing a third-and-11 from its 23. OSU 14, PSU 13.

0:38

A good offensive play for Penn State! McSorley takes a QB draw for 23 yards inside the OSU 39, and the Nittany Lions have their first scoring opportunity in a while. After a short first-down scramble by McSorley, the Nittany Lions are called for holding, setting up second-and-19. But Ohio State returns the favor, with Isaiah Pryor getting called for a really ticky-tack pass interference penalty on a bomb attempt to Hamler. First down at the 33.

Once again, the Nittany Lions stall out with the goal line in sight. Ohio State blitzes McSorley and forces a quick pass from McSorley, but he fires a nice enough pass to Polk, who drops it. Werner stuffs Sanders for a three-yard loss on a screen pass, but on third-and-13, Sanders gains 12.

Fourth-and-1 from the OSU 24, and PSU gets fancy. McSorley fakes a hand-off and throws quickly to an open Freiermuth ... only, Chase Young leaps to block the pass away. Turnover on downs. OSU 14, PSU 13.

3:27

The crowd is alive again. Dobbins is stopped for four yards, then Robert Windsor hurries Haskins into an overthrow. On third down, Haskins is hit as he throws to Hill, who gains just two yards. Three-and-out for OSU. Thompkins can’t do anything with Chrisman’s punt, and the Nittany Lions will start at their 38. OSU 14, PSU 13.

4:39

McSorley is still looking for Hamler on those slants. He fires incomplete to No. 1 on first down, then Sanders goes wide left for five yards to set up a third-and-semi-manageable. Turns out, it’s unmanageable. McSorley scrambles right and looks like he’s going to get the first down easily, but Malik Harrison tracks him down for a one-yard gain.

Another three-and-out for PSU, and the defense doesn’t get much rest. But Gillikin booms the punt, at least, and it’s fair caught at the OSU 10. OSU 14, PSU 13.

6:12

Weber powers his way for 13 yards into PSU territory, then a Haskins-to-Campbell pass gains 12. It’s quickly third-and-6, but PSU’s all-out pressure backfires again as a screen to Hill gains 11 yards to the PSU 16.

The Nittany Lions stiffen from there. Hill loses four yards, OSU commits a false start, then Weber gains eight to set up third-and-11, where Haskins fires too long for Hill. Sean Nuernberger’s 33-yard field goal attempt of the night is good, but the Buckeyes commit a face mask penalty, setting up a 48-yarder, one shy of his career long. He pushes it right, and PSU dodges a bullet. OSU 14, PSU 13.

8:57

Hamler has the green light to return kickoffs instead of fair catching for touchbacks, but he’s cost his team quite a few yards by doing that tonight. His return gets only to the 18, and a holding penalty backs them to the nine. Luckily for PSU, a personal foul penalty on OSU pushes them back to the 24 ... one yard short of the touchback line. Pet peeve of mine.

The Ohio State line picks up where it left off in the first half, stuffing Sanders for a three-yard loss, then McSorley gets nothing on second down. Third-and-long: Chase Young bats down a McSorley pass. Three-and-out, and OSU will start at its 44 after a couple more special teams penalties. Horrid start for the Nittany Lions in the third quarter, and the White Out crowd is totally silent. OSU 14, PSU 13.

10:22

TOUCHDOWN. A much more crisp Ohio State offense emerges from the locker room after halftime. Starting from the 25, Dobbins rushes for eight yards, then Haskins finds Campbell for gains of eight and nine yards. Dobbins rushes for five yards to move the chains again, then Haskins goes deep for Austin Mack but misses. After an eight-yard pass to Binjimen Victor, Dobbins comes up just short on third-and-2.

Fourth-and-inches: Dobbins gets exactly the number of inches needed. First down at the PSU 35.

Rushes by Haskins (five yards) and Dobbins (six) generate another first down and work the Buckeyes solidly into field goal range. Hill runs wide left for eight yards, then makes a one-handed snare of a little flare pass to gain 12 more yards. First-and-goal at the 4, and Dobbins takes it from there. Touchdown. Thirteen plays, 75 yards, 4:38. What a drive to start the half. OSU 14, PSU 13.

Halftime

Some stats:

  • Total yards: PSU 293, OSU 93
  • Yards per play: PSU 7.0, OSU 3.1
  • First downs: PSU 9, OSU 4
  • PSU’s Trace McSorley: 10-for-19 for 198 yards and one touchdown, plus 10 carries for 76 yards
  • OSU’s Dwayne Haskins: 7-for-16 for 62 yards, one TD, and one INT.
  • PSU’s Miles Sanders: 10 carries for 31 yards
  • OSU’s JK Dobbins and Mike Weber: 10 carries for 30 yards, two catches for 31 yards and a score

Second Quarter

0:00

Hamler’s return comes out to the 18. McSorley and Johnson connect for 10 yards, McSorley runs a QB draw for eight more, and then Johnson catches another short pass as the clock moves under one minute. Sanders gets to midfield, and PSU uses its first timeout with 36 seconds left. Pete Werner stops McSorley short on third-and-2, though, and Gillikin punts. Ohio State kneels it out and heads to the locker room, pretty dang lucky to be in this game. PSU 13, OSU 7.

1:50

TOUCHDOWN. Life for Ohio State. After another Dobbins carry is stuffed, Ohio State perfectly executes a screen pass. Haskins lobs to Dobbins, who explodes down the right sideline. Ohio State has no business being in this game but trails by just six approaching halftime. PSU 13, OSU 7.

2:32

FUMBLE. Tuf Borland separates Sanders from the ball, and Dre’Mont Jones falls on it at the bottom of a huge file. Ohio State’s defense just created a break. PSU 13, OSU 0.

2:44

PSU’s line is just dominating. Rushes by Weber and Campbell gain a combined three yards, and a pressured (yet again) Haskins can only find Weber for five yards on third-and-7. Another damn three-and-out. Chrisman makes another nice punt, and PSU will start at its 25.

4:23

Nothing is more of a tease than a nearly successful wheel route. McSorley and Sanders can’t quite hook up, and after a three-yard run by McSorley, Mac Hippenhammer can’t reel in a third-and-7 pass. Gillikin’s punt is fair caught at the OSU 25. PSU 13, OSU 0.

5:17

OSU creates only its second third-and-manageable of the night after Haskins finds Campbell for seven yards, but the third-down result is the same: PSU blitzes, Haskins rushes his throw, and McLaurin can’t reel it in. ANOTHER three-and-out for the Buckeyes. Goodness. Ohio State is so out of sorts that Chrisman’s punt is even semi-returnable. Hamler takes it to the PSU 29. PSU 13, OSU 0.

5:59

TOUCHDOWN. McSorley again targets Hamler, and again it falls incomplete. Sanders buys space with a five-yard run...

...and then Hamler shows why McSorley is trying so hard to get him the ball and why I should shut up. He finally reels in one of those quick slants and outruns basically every Ohio State defender.

A 93-yard lightning bolt, and PSU’s lead just got a lot more comfortable. PSU 13, OSU 0.

7:02

OSU’s offense: also disheveled. Weber gains just two yards on first down, then Haskins has to basically throw the ball away on a well-covered screen pass. Haskins is once again forced to scramble from the pocket, and a trio of Nittany Lions, including Micah Parsons, is waiting to corral him. Another punt.

Another good punt, mind you. Chrisman’s boot is downed at the 1. PSU 6, OSU 0.

8:30

PSU’s offense is disheveled. A McSorley slant to Hamler is nearly picked off — it really feels like he’s forcing the ball to him at this point (and the offense was looking a lot better when he was looking at a lot of guys) — then Chase Young sacks him for a loss of seven. On third-and-long, Johnson suffers his second drop, but he wouldn’t have gotten the first down anyway. Another three-and-out, and Gillikin’s punt (his best of the night) is fair caught at the OSU 40. PSU 6, OSU 0.

9:24

Three J.K. Dobbins rushes gain 16 yards and move the chains, but a fourth gains just two. Haskins throws incomplete to a well-covered Terry McLaurin, and on third-and-8, Haskins is nearly sacked and misfires, almost throwing a second pick. Four of five third downs have been third-and-longs, and the Buckeyes haven’t converted any of them (or come particularly close). PSU will start at its 19. PSU 6, OSU 0. Total Yards: PSU 166, OSU 56.

11:18

FIELD GOAL. Woof. PSU has been miserable in the red zone. Sanders loses three yards on first down, then McSorley drastically overshoots Hamler. On third-and-13, Sanders takes a direct snap off right end but slips about three yards short of the sticks. Pinegar’s 39-yarder is good and doubles Penn State’s lead, but that’s six points in three scoring opportunities. That doesn’t typically get the job done against top-five opponents. PSU 6, OSU 0.

12:48

INTERCEPTION. After an 11-yard Mike Weber run moves the Buckeyes into PSU territory for the first time, Haskins fires over the middle to tight end Rashod Berry. The ball hits him in the hands, then bounces off of them. Garrett Taylor picks it off and takes it 45 yards in the other direction to the OSU 28 before Johnnie Dixon tracks him down and a scuffle ensues. Huge opportunity for the Nittany Lions. PSU 3, OSU 0.

13:27

PSU starts at the 19 after another good Chrisman punts. (I feel like I’ve live-blogged a lot of awesome Chrisman punts in the last 12 months or so.) McSorley rushes for four yards on first down, then, finds Hamler for no gain. His third-and-6 pass to Hamler is broken up by Shaun Wade. Three-and-out. Blake Gillikin’s second punt is better than his first but isn’t great — OSU will start at its 45. PSU 3, OSU 0. Success rate so far: PSU 32% (bad), OSU 10% (horrible).

First Quarter

0:00

Dobbins loses three yards out wide, then Tariq Castro-Fields nearly picks off a misfire from Haskins. A pass to Mack is short of the chains, and Ohio State will begin the second quarter by punting. PSU 3, OSU 0. Total yards: PSU 155, OSU 27. Nittany Lions on pace for 620 yards ... and 12 points.

1:14

Big play No. 2 for PSU: McSorley runs to the right and finds lots of green grass — 51 yards’ worth. He’s pushed out of bounds at the OSU 29. Two Sanders runs gains just three yards, though, and McSorley’s sacked by Chase Young on third-and-7. Pinegar’s 46-yard field goal drifts left. The Nittany Lions lead, but they should be leading by more. OSU isn’t going to be stagnant forever. PSU 3, OSU 0.

3:36

Three-and-out for Ohio State. You don’t see many of those. A short pass to K.J. Hill and a run by Mike Weber gain three yards, then Hill drops a quick slant. Crowd’s into it. Chrisman uncorks a nice punt, though, and PSU will start at its 20. PSU 3, OSU 0.

4:58

FIELD GOAL. McSorley’s getting a lot of guys involved early. After a short run by Sanders, the senior QB hits freshman Pat Freiermuth for 15 yards. He bulls his way into OSU territory for a 13-yard gain, then lobs the ball to Johnson, who makes an absolutely astounding one-handed catch at the OSU 30.

Wow.

The drive de-rails when they try to get Stevens involved again. He drops a lateral and falls on it for a 13-yard loss. Johnson catches two seven-yard passes to set up a makable field goal attempt, at least. Jake Pinegar’s 34-yarder creeps inside the right upright. PSU 3, OSU 0.

8:35

Ohio State certainly trusts Dwayne Haskins. In the sophomore’s first real road start, his first two plays are passes: a 10-yarder to Austin Mack and a ball off of Parris Campbell’s hands. His first third down (after a false start and a five-yard scramble): a screen pass to Campbell that is snarfed up by Shareef Miller. Drue Chrisman’s first punt is fair caught at the 21. PSU 0, OSU 0.

10:10

Penn State wins the toss and elects to take the ball. That’s one way to try to make the electric atmosphere even more electric. KJ Hamler returns the ball to the PSU 21, and we’re underway.

Trace McSorley hits Hamler for nine yards on a play-fake, then finds Brandon Polk wide open on the sideline for 20 more yards to midfield. Miles Sanders’ first carry gains three yards, and after a two-yard loss by Tommy Stevens, McSorley scrambles and dives to within two yards of the chains. Fourth-and-2 from the OSU 42, after an Ohio State timeout and lots of feints: Sanders gains two yards and not an inch more. First down.

It’s quickly third down again after carries by Stevens and McSorley gain just one yard, and Juwan Johnson drops a pass, so after all the hullabaloo, PSU punts ... and it drifts out of bounds at only the 20. PSU 0, OSU 0.


Preview

In a short amount of time, the Penn State White Out game has become one of football’s signature scenes. The size, intensity, and brightness of the crowd, combined with the fact that a big-time rival is in town, tends to make it must-see television.

But historically, the White Out hasn’t tended to benefit the home team.

Compared to the spread, Penn State actually underachieved by an average of about 1.8 points per game before the last two seasons; the Nittany Lions failed to cover five of seven White Out games between 2006 and 2012.

Penn State White Out results

Season Opponent W/L Score Spread Diff
Season Opponent W/L Score Spread Diff
2004 No. 9 Purdue L 13-20 +9.5 2.5
2005 No. 6 Ohio State W 17-10 +3.5 3.5
2006 No. 4 Michigan L 10-17 +5 -2
2007 Notre Dame W 31-10 -17.5 3.5
2008 No. 22 Illinois W 38-24 -15.5 -1.5
2009 Iowa L 10-24 -9.5 -20.5
2010 Michigan W 41-31 +3 7
2011 No. 3 Alabama L 11-27 +10 -6
2012 No. 9 Ohio State L 23-35 +0 -12
2013 No. 18 Michigan W 43-40 (OT) +2.5 5.5
2014 No. 13 Ohio State L 24-31 (OT) +14 7
2015 No. 14 Michigan L 16-28 +4 -8
2016 No. 2 Ohio State W 24-21 +19.5 22.5
2017 No. 19 Michigan W 42-13 -9.5 19.5
2018 No. 4 Ohio State +4.5

It’s become a perk more recently, though.

In 2013, PSU was a 2.5-point underdog but beat 18th-ranked Michigan in overtime. The next year, the Nittany Lions were a 14-point underdog but took No. 13 Ohio State to overtime before falling. And of course, following a bit of a dud in 2015 (four-point underdogs, they lost to No. 14 Michigan by 12), they ignited in the past two seasons.

Their special teams-aided 24-21 win over No. 2 Ohio State in 2016 set the table for a run to the Big Ten title, and while they were 9.5-point favorites hosting Michigan last season, they won by 29.

For all intents and purposes, then, the Big Ten race begins on Saturday night in Pennsylvania.

Let’s do an old-school SWOT analysis to lay out how this game might play out.

Each team’s strengths

Ohio State: Relentless efficiency

Four teams have beaten Ohio State in the last 24 months. But to do so, you have to find an alternate route. The most direct path to wins and losses — efficiency — is almost permanently tinted scarlet and gray.

In 2015, the Buckeyes ranked 10th in offensive success rate (the amount of plays that remain on schedule toward first downs) and seventh in defensive success rate. In 2016: 18th and 14th, respectively. In 2017: third and 14th. In 2018, so far, with a new starting quarterback: second and 15th. They stay on schedule and make sure you don’t.

Ohio State holds a plus-24 percent success rate advantage over opponents (57.7 percent to 33.3 percent, filtering out garbage time). Granted, the Buckeyes have played only one team ranked higher than 97th in S&P+ (current No. 30 TCU), but even against TCU, they held a solid 6 percent advantage.

Efficiency is replicable. Ohio State forces you to rely on less reliable methods — a blocked kick returned for a touchdown (2016 Penn State), for instance, or a sudden gush of turnovers (2017 Iowa).

Penn State: The offense is still really, really good

This is a different Penn State offense, in some ways the polar opposite of 2016-17, when Joe Moorhead (now Mississippi State’s head coach) was calling the plays and running back Saquon Barkley was a threat to go 80 yards on any snap.

In 2016, the Nittany Lions were big-play dynamos, threats to score every play, but inconsistent and inefficient.

In 2017, they sacrificed some of the big plays for efficiency. They improved from 37.6 to 41.1 points per game and from 18th to 10th in Off. S&P+.

This time, under new coordinator Ricky Rahne, they’ve skewed even further in the direction of efficiency. With a thinner receiving corps, they’ve leaned on junior Miles Sanders and backups Ricky Slade and Mark Allen, who have combined for 120 carries and 741 yards (6.2 per carry) in four games. Quarterback Trace McSorley (38 non-sack carries, 257 yards) is a weapon, too. Allen is out with injury, but Slade could be ready for a larger share of carries.

Despite occasional passing struggles — McSorley is completing 54 percent of his passes, way down from last year’s 67 percent — PSU ranks eighth in overall success rate, 12th in run efficiency, and 13th in standard-downs efficiency. And the Nittany Lions have been good at picking up steam as a game wears on, averaging 18.3 points in the first half and 35.5 in the second.

Each team’s weaknesses

Ohio State: Big plays are not the Buckeyes’ friend

In 14 games last season, the Buckeyes gave up 20 gains of 30-plus yards, or 1.4 per game.

In just four weeks, this year’s defense has already given up 11, 2.8 per game.

And most of the breakdowns have come in defense-friendly situations. They rank fourth in standard-downs explosiveness allowed ... and 129th in passing-downs (second-and-long, third/fourth-and-medium-plus) explosiveness allowed.

The absence of defensive end Nick Bosa, the blue-chip junior who had six tackles for loss in basically 2.5 games, could give McSorley an extra beat for finding big-play opportunities.

PSU is not the big-play machine it was, but if you combine the Nittany Lions’ potential run efficiency with two or three gashes, then that might get the job done, especially if the Buckeyes’ offense can’t match.

When Ohio State has the ball, it’s strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness in the explosiveness department. Penn State ranks 61st in standard-downs explosiveness allowed, but OSU’s offense ranks only 90th. OSU ranks a lofty 12th on passing downs, but PSU ranks 15th.

Penn State: The run defense has been awfully shaky

Head coach James Franklin appeared to know he had some leeway last Friday at Illinois, deploying a large rotation of defenders (many freshman or sophomores) while he and his staff continued to try to figure out what they’ve got. The game remained close for a while.

That’s been a theme this year. Twenty-five different PSU defenders have seen the field enough to make at least three tackles (not including special teams tackles), and nine have recorded at least 9.5 (Ohio State, for comparison’s sake: 22 of the former, only six of the latter).

We don’t know what will happen if or when Franklin and coordinator Brent Pry pare down the rotation, but we do know this: with this large rotation, the run defense has kind of stunk. Penn State ranks 73rd in run efficiency allowed and 88th in run explosiveness. A trio of Illinois backs (Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein, and RaVon Bonner) carried 28 times for 202 yards, while Pitt’s Qadree Ollison and A.J. Davis carried 27 times for 157 yards a few weeks ago.

I just named a few pretty good backs, but Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are better.

Opportunities and threats

(We’ll combine this into one, since one team’s opportunity is the other’s threat. In fact, let’s simply treat this as each team’s most likely path to victory.)

Ohio State’s most likely path to victory is kind of obvious

The Buckeyes’ tendencies have changed since Dwayne Haskins took over at quarterback. While they always leaned toward the run game with JT Barrett, they now throw more than the national average on both standard downs (57 percent run rate, 3 percentage points below the average) and passing downs (25 percent run rate, 10 percentage points below).

Haskins has rewarded this trust with otherworldly numbers. He is completing 76 percent of his passes at nearly 14 yards per completion, and he’s taking few sacks. He’s showing the poise and decision-making of a senior (he’s a sophomore) and distributing evenly — four different receivers have between 205 and 299 receiving yards.

Of course, when there’s a game to put to bed, the Buckeyes still have Dobbins and Weber. If the game reaches that stage, it’s hard to imagine PSU’s young defense getting the stops it needs.

When you’re the better team — and Ohio State is the “better team” against any team besides Alabama and maybe Clemson or Georgia — you don’t have to rely on unlikely events. If the Buckeyes win in Happy Valley, it’s probably because they made too many third-down conversions with Haskins’ arm early on, took advantage of PSU’s occasional mid-game funks, and moved the chains with Dobbins and Weber late.

The S&P+ projection for this game is OSU 35, PSU 32, but that’s the average result. If the Buckeyes win, I’m thinking it’s something close to 35-24.

Penn State’s most likely path to victory: time for the unveil

Each week, Franklin makes a show of reminding his team not to look ahead. Every game is that week’s Super Bowl. Saturday opponent, Saturday opponent, Saturday opponent.

This is good coaching. Keeping a good team focused — especially a good young team — requires diligence, and even with this public display, his team still nearly slipped up against a good Appalachian State in Week 1.

Still, the Nittany Lions are 4-0 and sixth in S&P+ despite tinkering and a huge rotation. And now we probably get a more sustained glimpse of the real Penn State, the one with the pared-down defensive rotation and the thicker play book.

“1-0 mentality” or not, PSU’s almost undoubtedly been holding some things in reserve for this game. Now we find out if they work.

The formula for beating Ohio State seems simple on paper:

  • Take full advantage of the three or four big plays the Buckeyes will give you on defense.
  • Confuse Haskins at least a couple of times and make sure you end up with the ball when you do.
  • Hey, maybe block a field goal again — that worked pretty well last time.

Ohio State is tremendous at leaning on you until you give out, but a couple of teams per year manage to make the Buckeyes uncomfortable. TCU did for a while.

If Sanders gets to 100 rushing yards, if a veteran receiver like Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins (only six catches so far), or Brandon Polk (ditto) can reel in a long ball, and if the pass rush, led by end Shareef Miller, can get Haskins to the ground, PSU’s got a healthy shot.