University Park, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Big Ten Conference border rivals square off on Saturday night, as the 13th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes come calling on the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Ohio State enters the fray having won five of its first six games, and the team has been victorious in 18 consecutive regular-season conference games. The Buckeyes have won four straight since suffering their lone defeat of the campaign (35-21 vs. Virginia Tech), with their most recent triumph coming in a 56-17 rout of visiting Rutgers last Saturday.
Penn State opened the 2014 season with four consecutive victories, but has since lost two in a row, both in conference to Northwestern (29-6) and Michigan (18-13). The Nittany Lions, who were idle last weekend, have struggled offensively in their two losses, and they will face another major test in this outing. Following this clash, PSU will play four winnable games against Maryland, Indiana, Temple and Illinois, before finishing the regular season at home against defending conference champion Michigan State.
The all-time series between these two teams leans in favor of Ohio State, 15-13, and the Buckeyes won the last meeting two years ago in Happy Valley, 35-23. OSU has won three straight on Penn State's home field, with the Lions' last home win in the series being a 17-10 decision back in 2005.
The Ohio State offense has been on fire recently, scoring at least 50 points in four straight outings to establish a new school record. In those games, the Buckeyes have amassed at least 500 yards of offense -- also a new program benchmark. As a result, OSU ranks first in the Big Ten in total offense (533.8 ypg), and fourth in the country in scoring (46.5 ppg).
Coach Urban Meyer's club has outscored its last four opponents by a 224-69 margin.
The Buckeyes are led by quarterback J.T. Barrett, who has filled in admirably for injured star Braxton Miller by completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,615 yards, 20 TDs and only five INTs. Barrett is also a threat to break out of the pocket, and has done so for 383 yards and four scores. The team's leading rusher is Ezekiel Elliott with his 531 yards and four TDs, while the top target in the passing game is Michael Thomas (21 receptions, 377 yards, five TDs).
From a defense standpoint, Ohio State has excelled against the pass (181.7 ypg, seven TDs), and has performed fairly well versus run (137.8 ypg, eight TDs). As a result, foes are scoring an average of only 20.2 ppg. The Buckeyes have proven themselves to be an opportunistic bunch, coming up with 10 INTs and 16 sacks, the former ranking them second in the Big Ten. Their +5 turnover margin ranks them third. Joshua Perry leads the team in tackles with 45, while Joey Bosa paces the conference in TFL (9.0) while sitting second in sacks (5.0).
Ohio State outgained Rutgers, 585-345, last week, getting another outstanding individual effort from Barrett. The young signal caller threw for 261 yards and three TDs, while adding a team-high 107 yards and two additional scores on the ground, doing so on only seven carries. Elliott tacked on 69 yards and a TD on a dozen totes, while Thomas paced the receivers with 55 yards on four grabs.
The Buckeyes permitted 192 passing yards last week, but allowed only a pair of rushing TDs to the Scarlet Knights. Perry and Doran Grant each had seven tackles in the win, and the unit as a whole was credited with three takeaways and four sacks, two of which belonged to Bosa.
Meyer was obviously pleased with the outcome last week, in particular how quickly his team started, which has been commonplace of late.
"We had a lot of respect for Rutgers. They came in, 5 and 1. Really could have been 6 and 0, other than the slam pass that the Penn State receiver caught against them. So pleased with the get out, that we got out of the locker room fast, 14-0, that's a good sign of several games right in a row."
Despite the Big Ten's top-rated passer (average yards per game) wearing a Penn State uniform, the offense for coach James Franklin's squad has been rather lackluster this season. Penn State averages just 21.2 ppg (13th in the conference), with its effort through the air (282.3 ypg) resulting much more favorably than when it decides to keep the ball on the ground (league-worst 93.2 ypg).
Christian Hackenberg is averaging a league-best 272.8 ypg, but has thrown only five TD passes while being intercepted seven times. His pass efficiency rating is one of the lowest in the conference. DaeSean Hamilton has reeled in 43 balls (a new PSU freshman record) for 560 yards, and Eugene Lewis has 32 grabs for 512 yards. Bill Belton serves as the team's top ground gainer, but he averages just 43 ypg. Belton and Zach Zwinak had found the end zone three times apiece.
Penn State has given up the second-most sacks of any team in the Big Ten (20), but is among the league leaders in time of possession (32:43).
Penn State's effort on defense this season has resulted in opponents scoring just 15.2 ppg, while averaging only 283.3 ypg -- both of which rank the team first in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions have been particularly strong against the run in allowing a league-low 60.8 ypg, with foes scoring only six rushing TDs. They also lead the conference in red zone defense (.632), as well as in the fewest first downs allowed (85).
Mike Hull, who made 11 stops in the loss to Michigan, is clearly the team's most productive player on defense, amassing 64 total tackles, 40 of which have been solo efforts. His closest teammate, Nyeem Wartman, has only 26 stops.
The Wolverines tallied a meager 64 rushing yards on the night, but the Lions had only 54. Hackenberg threw for just 160 yards with a TD and an INT, and he was sacked six times. Hamilton caught his first career TD pass in the loss.