Ohio State got away with a rare display of ineffectiveness in the red zone at home to beat Iowa last week, but the No. 2 Buckeyes know the same will not work on the road against No. 13 Penn State on Saturday at State College, Pa.
The Buckeyes (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) had 27 touchdowns and two field goals in 29 trips to the red zone before playing the Hawkeyes. While they kept the streak alive to go 7-for-7 in the red zone against Iowa, it was not in the manner expected during the 54-10 victory.
In the first half, Ohio State settled for four red-zone field goals after starting each drive inside the Iowa 35.
“I would say all of the drives that ended in field goals, we were obviously upset with,” Ohio State receiver Emeka Egbuka said. “So that’s definitely not the standard that we hold ourselves to week in and week out.”
Unlike Iowa, with its anemic offense, Penn State (6-1, 3-1) could make the Buckeyes pay. Sixth-year Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford rebounded from a subpar game, and an injured shoulder in the 41-17 loss to Michigan on Oct. 15, to go 23 of 31 for 295 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-17 victory over Minnesota last week.
“He is a veteran, he’s very smart. He’s good at reading what you’re doing,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “The receivers, they’re skillful. They can go up and win a lot of 50-50 balls. … I just think that whole operation will be a challenge for us.”
In turn, the Nittany Lions will present a challenge for Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, who leads the nation’s second-best scoring offense at 49.6 points per game (Tennessee is first at 50.1). Stroud threw four touchdowns passes, three in the second half, against Iowa to give him 28 for the season, although he has thrown an interception in four straight games.
“Stroud makes it go,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He throws on the run as well as from the pocket. He’s leading the Heisman race for a reason.”
The Penn State pass defense ranks third in the nation in completion percentage (50.7), allowing six TDs with seven interceptions. However, the Nittany Lions rank 79th in passing yards allowed (232.9).
Defense has not been a concern for the Buckeyes, who rank second in total defense (239.9 yards per game), third in passing defense (149.0), fifth in scoring (14.8 points) and eighth in rushing defense (90.9 yards).
Against the Hawkeyes they had three fumble recoveries, three interceptions and five sacks.
“It’s an arc. It’s definitely trended up and continues to trend up. It’s my job to keep that going. You can’t stay the same,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, it’s a habit. That’s Aristotle, I think. Not Jim Knowles.”
Ohio State has won five straight in the series, but the Nittany Lions will rely on the home crowd to pull the upset. The Buckeyes were 38-25 winners at State College two years ago, but that game was played in an empty Beaver Stadium because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve got to start fast on offense,” Franklin said. “That’s in practice. That’s in jog-throughs and obviously in games.”
This will be the first day game in the series at Penn State since 2009 and the Nittany Lions’ first noon start at home vs. the Buckeyes since 2001.
— Field Level Media