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Previewing The Enemy: Ohio State Buckeyes

No. 20 Penn State football’s date with No. 5 Ohio State probably couldn’t come at a worse time.

After dropping a heartbreaker to Iowa, the Nittany Lions came off the bye week and laid an egg in a 20-18 loss to Illinois this past weekend. The Fighting Illini were 2-5 overall entering Saturday’s contest, and James Franklin’s team is now left reeling as it travels to take on the top team in the Big Ten.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the Nittany Lions’ prime-time opponent:

The Team

Now in his third full season as Ohio State’s head coach, Ryan Day has clearly continued the tradition of excellence for the Buckeyes. Other than the week-two loss to then-No. 7 Oregon, Day’s team has made easy work of all its opponents this season.

Most recently, Ohio State dominated Indiana 54-7 during a night game in Bloomington. First-year starting quarterback CJ Stroud led the Buckeyes with 266 yards through the air along with four touchdowns, while the defense held the Hoosiers to just 128 total yards. The group had a bye the week before, but before that rolled Maryland 66-17.

The Buckeyes’ other wins this season include Minnesota, Tulsa, Akron, and Rutgers. While they’re still waiting on a ranked victory, Day’s group has put up at least 40 points in each of its wins this season.

Ohio State also has history on its side entering this weekend’s clash, as the Nittany Lions haven’t won at Ohio Stadium since 2011. In fact, the famous 2016 win is Penn State’s only other victory over the Buckeyes in the past 10 years.

Offense

Ohio State’s offensive unit has been pacing the Big Ten all season long, to say the least. The Buckeyes are leading the conference by averaging 49.3 points per game and an absurd 559.3 yards. In his first year starting, redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Stroud has been a star. The California native has totaled 1,965 passing yards this season and is leading the Big Ten with 22 scores through the air.

Stroud has thrown double-digit touchdowns in all games but one thus far, including back-to-back five-score days against Rutgers and Maryland. Efficiency has been the name of the game for the former four-star prospect, as he’s been sacked just once in the past three games and has a completion percentage of 67.6%.

Outside of the potent passing attack, the Buckeyes offer solid rushing options as well. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has four 100-yard rushers this year, and freshman TreVeyon Henderson has been the unquestioned leader of the group. The Virginia native arrived in Columbus as the top running back prospect in the nation, and he’s lived up to the hype so far.

Henderson leads Ohio State with 693 rushing yards this season, which is good for fifth in the Big Ten, and 11 scores. The freshman already has two triple-digit yardage performances, including a 277-yard day against Tulsa, and has scored in every game but the season opener. Henderson also has posed a threat as a receiver, as he’s grabbed 168 yards through the air and three more scores.

Outside of Henderson, Miyan Williams and Master Teague III have both worked as serviceable secondary options. Teague, a junior who Penn State fans know well at this point, has rushed 43 times for 245 yards and three scores, while Williams has added 309 yards on the ground.

While the Nittany Lions should expect to see a heavy dose of that trio on the ground, Brent Pry’s defense also has plenty of threats to deal with through the air.

As James Franklin noted at his Tuesday presser, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and Chris Olave could give Penn State’s secondary fits all night. Wilson, now in his third season with the Buckeyes, picked up right where he left off from his productive sophomore campaign. The wideout paces the group with 36 grabs worth 605 yards and six scores and has established a consistent connection with Stroud.

Wilson is Ohio State’s only 600-yard receiver at the moment, but the veteran Olave and Smith-Njigba are right behind him from a production standpoint. Olave leads Buckeye receivers with already eight touchdowns this season and already has three two-score games. Smith-Njigba, on the other hand, has totaled 551 receiving yards so far.

Penn State knows this group well, as both Olave and Wilson had 100-yard nights at last season’s empty White Out defeat. The first of that pair added two touchdowns to this 120-yard performance.

Tight end Jeremy Ruckert could also cause problems for Penn State. The senior big fella is Ohio State’s fourth-leading receiver, as he’s earned 186 yards and three scores on 16 catches this season.

Defense

In terms of the rest of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes’ defense has been fairly middle of the road this season. Ohio State is allowing 18.6 points per game along with 348.3 yards, but the group has steadily improved since a mediocre start to 2021.

Last week, the Buckeyes allowed just seven points and 128 total yards to the Hoosiers. Before that, it was just 335 total yards and 17 points to Maryland. The most impressive stat for Ohio State’s defense, however, is that it’s allowing just 117.4 rushing yards per game.

Upfront, the Buckeyes are led by defensive tackles Haskell Garrett and Antwuan Jackson. Garrett, a senior, leads the defense with six total tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. As for Jackson, the sophomore nose guard has made 15 total tackles and two sacks. Jerron Cage could also see time at nose guard, as the senior has a sack and five total tackles this season.

Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, and Tyreke Smith have seen the most production at the end positions. Harrison leads the group with 14 total tackles and two sacks, including one that he grabbed against Indiana last week. Smith saw an increased role while Jean-Baptiste missed three games due to injury, and has grabbed nine total tackles and a sack thus far.

Freshman Jack Sawyer has also impressed in a rotational role by totaling 10 tackles and two sacks this season.

Teradja Mitchell, Cody Simon, and Tommy Eichenberg are expected to see the most time at linebacker Saturday night. Mitchell doesn’t have a sack yet this season, but he’s second on the team with 37 total tackles, including double-digit days against Minnesota and Oregon.

Simon sits right behind Mitchell with 32 total tackles on the year and a sack, while the sophomore Eichenberg has grabbed 24 tackles in his rotational role.

The group overall, however, is clearly led by safety/linebacker hybrid Ronnie Hickman at the “bullet” position. The sophomore leads the Buckeyes with 52 total tackles and two interceptions, the second of which he took back for a touchdown in a blowout victory over Akron. Hickman has paced the defense with three double-digit tackle performances after a fairly quiet freshman campaign in 2020.

As for the rest of the secondary, Penn State will see plenty of Denzel Burke and Sevyn Banks at the cornerback spots. The true freshman Burke has six pass breakups this season along with an interception and 16 total tackles. After excelling through his first season with the Buckeyes so far, the former four-star recruit is expected to go against Jahan Dotson for much of Saturday night’s battle.

Banks, on the other hand, is a senior who’s only played in two games this season due to a preseason injury. He’ll likely see plenty of time against the Nittany Lions, however, while junior Cameron Brown is expected to mix into the rotation.

Special Teams

Graduate senior kicker Noah Ruggles has been the man for the Buckeyes all season long. He’s nailed all 44 of his extra-point attempts and is a perfect 7-for-7 on his field goals, including two worth more than 40 yards.

True freshman Jesse Mirco has attempted 16 punts this season for an average of 43.6 yards. Mirco’s longest punt of the season sailed 62 yards. The Australian is the only punter to have played this season thus far for the Buckeyes, so the Nittany Lions should expect to see him at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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