STATE COLLEGE — Penn State coach James Franklin didn’t mince words about his team’s upcoming opponent.
No. 9 Penn State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) travels to No. 2 Ohio State (10-0, 7-0) this weekend to play the highest-ranked foe the Nittany Lions have faced this season.
“Probably the most talented roster we’ve watched on tape, definitely this year, maybe since we’ve been here,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be a great challenge.”
The last three meetings between Penn State and Ohio State have been decided by a total of just five points. Ohio State is 2-1 during those games. The Nittany Lions’ last win came in 2016 after the now-iconic blocked field goal and scoop-and-score touchdown that secured a 24-21 win.
“If you go back all the way to 2014, (when) they won the national championship, our first year, (we) took them to double overtime if I remember correctly,” Franklin said. “We’ve had a lot of competition with these guys. We’ve played them probably as well as anybody over that period of time.”
The Nittany Lions’ passing attack could be a disadvantage if yards-receiving leader KJ Hamler is unavailable. Hamler was injured in the first half against Indiana.
“We’ll wait and see, but we were hopeful after the game,” Franklin said. “I still remain hopeful. Again, the medical professionals will make those decisions.”
New faces abound on both rosters.
First-year Ohio State head coach Ryan Day is off to a 10-0 start in his inaugural season in Columbus. He served as offensive coordinator under former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. While Day’s role has changed, his fingerprint on the offense hasn’t.
The Buckeyes boast the nation’s top-scoring offense at 51.5 points per game. They’ve scored 70 touchdowns this year and have kicked just eight field goals.
Day isn’t the only first-year member of the Buckeyes who has experienced success this season. First-year quarterback Justin Fields has been among the nation’s most efficient at the position. The Georgia transfer and one-time Penn State verbal commit has thrown for 2,164 yards and 31 touchdowns against just one interception. He leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency.
A true dual-threat signal-caller, Fields has also run for 377 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“He’s special, of course,” Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney said. “We don’t single out any other player more than anybody else as far as the d-line. Most quarterbacks you’re going to play in the Big Ten are going to be good or great, (and) do something well. You just got to approach them the right way. You can’t let him get out the pocket, things like that. You have to do your job as a defensive end.”
Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos are bookends on a Penn State defensive line that has accumulated 33 sacks (11th in FBS) this season. The Nittany Lions have recorded 22 sacks in Big Ten play, with 10 of them coming against Purdue.
The Buckeyes’ offensive line is yielding 2.2 sacks per game.
Fields has a plethora of offensive weapons at his disposal. Running back J.K. Dobbins ranks second in the Big Ten with 1,289 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. Wide receiver Chris Olave has a team-high 593 yards receiving and nine touchdowns.
Defensively, Ohio State also leads the nation in scoring defense (9.8 points per game). It hasn’t yielded more than 21 points this season to an opponent.
The Buckeyes will welcome the return of defensive lineman Chase Young, who served a two-game suspension (Maryland and Rutgers) while the NCAA investigated a possible violation from 2018.
Young was touted as a possible Heisman candidate before his suspension. He’s accumulated an eye-popping 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in eight games played.
“I probably haven’t seen, watching film, another dude like Chase,” Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “Obviously Chase Winovich (former Michigan defensive end), maybe. Chase Young is a great player. He just jumps out, he’s so physical. Physically dominant. He just rushes the passer really well. He stops the run really well. Just an athlete out there… We just got to be on our A-game, identify him wherever he is on the field just so he can’t wreck our game plan.”