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Opinion: 5 keys to Ohio State’s matchup with the Nittany Lions

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(Left) Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg makes a pass during a Sept. 6 game against Akron in State College, Pa. Penn State won, 21-3. Credit: Courtesy of TNS (Right) Redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. barrett carries the ball during a game against Rutgers on Oct. 18 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won, 56-17. Credit: Mark Batke / Photo editor

(Left) Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg makes a pass during a Sept. 6 game against Akron in State College, Pa. Penn State won, 21-3.
Credit: Courtesy of TNS
(Right) Redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. barrett carries the ball during a game against Rutgers on Oct. 18 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won, 56-17.
Credit: Mark Batke / Photo editor

In 2013, the Ohio State football team beat a reeling Penn State squad, 63-14, at Ohio Stadium.

About a year later, the Buckeyes (5-1, 2-0) and Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2) are set to face off again. But this time around, Penn State is free of NCAA sanctions including a revoked postseason ban and likely looking to avenge its big loss last season.

The Lantern sports editors picked five keys to the matchup that could either spark the Buckeyes or help the Nittany Lions turn around their season.

1. J.T. Barrett vs. Christian Hackenberg

Barrett is OSU’s redshirt-freshman phenomenon while Hackenberg is a true sophomore with all-world potential.

The two are set to go head-to-head under center when their teams meet this weekend, and the game could easily come down to which one plays better. Based off production so far this season, Barrett might be more likely to have the better day, but both have put up big numbers at times.

OSU’s quarterback is the Big Ten’s most efficient passer — checking in with a 182.1 efficiency rating so far — while Hackenberg is averaging more passing yards per game than any other quarterback in the conference. That being said, the second-year Penn State starter is averaging less than four yards more than Barrett.

Outside of yards per game, the Buckeyes look to have a huge statistical advantage as Barrett has thrown 20 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions, while Hackenberg has thrown seven picks to just five scoring tosses.

If the Buckeyes’ defense can get after Hackenberg and force him to make more mistakes — and if Barrett comes out firing once again — it could be another long day for the Nittany Lions.

2. Strength vs. Strength

Beyond two young guns at quarterback, the matchup between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions is set to feature the Big Ten’s top statistical defense against the conference’s best offense.

Penn State ranks first in the conference in total defense, giving up 283.3 yards per game, but OSU is first in total offense at a whopping 533.8 yards per game. The Nittany Lions are also first in scoring defense, giving up just 15.2 points per game this season, while the Buckeyes are No. 2 in the Big Ten with 46.5 points for per game this season.

The deciding factor in this game could be on the flip side of the field when the Buckeyes’ defense comes up against Penn State’s offense.

While the Nittany Lions’ defense has been strong throughout the year, their offense is all the way down at No. 10 in the conference with just 375.5 yards per game. They’ll be going up against an OSU defense that ranks fifth in the Big Ten for total defense.

If the numbers hold true, the Buckeye offense will be put to the test against Penn State, but the Nittany Lions might struggle to move the ball against a statistically superior OSU defense.

3. Will sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott find space to run?

Forget their total defensive numbers, the Nittany Lions’ defense has been simply dominant when it comes to the running game in 2014.

So far, they’re giving up just 60.8 yards per game, which puts them up more than 30 yards against the No. 2 team in the conference: Michigan.

But Penn State hasn’t had to face Elliott yet this season.

He’s not the best running back in the world right now, but he’s been breaking out over the past few weeks to spark the OSU offense on the ground. Overall, the Buckeyes are fifth in the Big Ten in rushing offense, but if Elliott continues to improve, they should climb the rankings.

Elliott will be up against a stiff test when he takes on the Penn State defensive front, but if he can find a way to match his season numbers — he’s averaging 88.5 yards per game — the Buckeyes will benefit greatly and likely find themselves in a position to win the game.

4. Will the Penn State crowd affect a young Buckeye team?

The last time OSU played a game in State College, Pa., nine current Buckeye starters weren’t even Buckeyes.

The crowd at Beaver Stadium is notorious for being loud and sporting the white-out look for prime-time games against ranked opponents. 

This time, the game means a little more as well. The last time the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions squared off in Beaver Stadium, neither team was eligible for the postseason because of NCAA violations. 

Now, the tables are turned and the stakes are higher, which will likely result in a sell-out crowd from the Penn State faithful.

Despite having the second-largest college venue in the country, Penn State ranked seventh in average home attendance as of Oct. 1. with an average of 99,806.

Expect that number to drastically rise Saturday night.

5. Could an OSU win give it a rise in the AP poll?

Let’s be honest, the Buckeye schedule is not very strong.

However, not many teams go into Beaver Stadium on a Saturday night and come out with a victory, except for the Buckeyes.

OSU has won its last three games when visiting the Nittany Lions and three of the last four night games overall against Penn State.

With that being said, will a win in a historically hostile environment be enough to impress the voters? Or will the Buckeyes have to blow out their division rival in order to get back into the top 10?

Only time will tell as the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are scheduled to meet Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.

 

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