This Penn State defense led by coordinator Bob Shoop is finally healthy again.
Remember the last time Penn State played the Ohio State Buckeyes? Sure, the Nittany Lions pushed them to double overtime, sparked by Saeed Blacknall’s clutch, fourth-quarter touchdown catch. And that Penn State defense did bend and break, somewhat surprisingly, in the overtime periods.
But make no mistake. No defense since has pushed them like Penn State, not on their national title run last year or their 6-0 start this year.
What kind of mojo will Shoop have working on this trip to Columbus?
Certainly, Penn State needs continued improvement from its shaky offense to stay in this prime time test against the nation’s No. 1. But to stay close at the end … and have any shot at an upset … the Lions’ must receive two or three lightning bolts from its defense.
Defense is what led the Lions on their recovery after the opening shocker to Temple. It’s their best hope of accomplishing something much more this weekend.
Now, six key match-ups for Penn State against the Buckeyes:
1. PSU offensive tackles Paris Palmer/Andrew Nelson vs. OSU defensive ends Joey Bosa and Tyquan Lewis
While the offensive line certainly has improved since allowing a stunning 10 sacks against Temple, there still are significant concerns, especially around Palmer, the junior college transfer, and Nelson, who is ramping up after a leg injury.
Palmer still looks tentative and suffered a poor second half last week trying to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s blind side. And how much is Nelson, the Lions’ top lineman, still hampered by that effects of that injury?
Now, they will be tested like never before, particularly by Bosa, a man-eating pass rusher, and Lewis, the line’s top producer so far with 5 ½ sacks. If the Lions cannot handle the pressure, its doubtful that Hackenberg will ever find his passing rhythm so desperately needed.
2. PSU linebackers vs. OSU quarterbacks Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and tailback Ezekiel Elliott
Jones (the pass-first starter) and backup Barrett (2,834 yards, 34 TDs last year) always are a threat to gouge defenses with their legs. It is a concern on every play for Penn State’s young LBs Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder. How well they can close gaps and wrap up tackles soundly near scrimmage? That would go a long way to keeping the Lions in this early, especially when Barrett takes over in the red zone.
Meanwhile, Elliott is a game-breaker in his own right. Just ask the Indiana defense, which may have finished that huge upset attempt a couple of weeks back if Elliott didn’t carve them up in the second half. He is a big-play machine, something the Lions limited last October and must do so again.
3. PSU receivers vs. OSU defensive backs Garreon Conley, Eli Apple and Vonn Bell
The Lions have struggled to get their young wideouts open downfield this season — actually, open most anywhere on the field. Head coach James Franklin says that’s not the most important thing, that pulling down the ball in traffic is just as effective. We agree, if you can actually make those catches regularly. Last week, Lion wideouts Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton let a few tough balls slip through their fingers early on. That can’t happen against the Buckeyes.
Plus, can Hackenberg get big-play Saeed Blacknall, Geno Lewis and speedster Brandon Polk involved, too? They may need at least two big plays from this trio to keep the Buckeyes honest.
4. PSU defensive line vs. OSU offensive line
The key for the Lions defensive success, for those lightning bolt plays, comes from the guys up front. We’re talking about the combination of Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson and Carl Nassib, the kind of force Ohio State hasn’t seen the likes of this fall.
It will be up to those guys, along with end Garrett Sickels, to create regular disruption in the backfield. They must consistently make life tough for Jones and Barrett — the key to enabling their linebackers and defensive backs to make those game-turning plays.
And no one has found a way to slow down Nassib yet, who must continue his run in Columbus. That’s why he leads the nation in sacks and forced fumbles.
5. PSU tailbacks vs. OSU defense
Is this the grand return of Saquon Barkley? It certainly looks that way. However, for all of his early highlights, no one has seen the true frosh run against superior competition yet. And no one knows how that apparent ankle injury will respond to hard shifting and running in a game. His big-play ability could go a long way to loosening up the entire offense. Even if Barkley can go strong, don’t underestimate the input from second-liners Nick Scott, Mark Allen and even junior Akeel Lynch, who may be back after missing the past two games to injury. Their blocking and execution on screen passes is vital for the offense’s survival.
6. PSU defense vs. Braxton Miller
As a quarterback, Miller tormented the Lions with his legs maybe more than his arm in back-to-back victories a couple of years ago.
Now, he may be the game’s “X factor” as a do-everything receiver. Nothing can bail out an unsteady offense like Miller, with his exclusive big-play ability in space. That means running after making a reception or taking a handoff in the backfield or even running out of the “wildcat” spot as a third quarterback.
He hasn’t enjoyed the ongoing success envisioned after that stunning second half in the opening victory over Virginia Tech.