UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - No. 2 Penn State football (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) is set to hit the road, traveling to No. 6 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) for a top 10 matchup Saturday. The Nittany Lions will make their first trip to Ohio Stadium since 2015, meeting the Buckeyes in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
While Ohio State enters the weekend fresh off a bye week, the Nittany Lions will look to channel the momentum from a spectacular 42-13 victory against Michigan, in yet another quintessential Penn State White Out at home in Beaver Stadium last weekend.
Led by head coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State heads into the 18th meeting between the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions at Ohio Stadium on a five-game winning streak. Well aware of the bonus of the bye week, Meyer-coached teams are currently 45-4 in games where he's had more than a week to prepare.
Since Penn State head coach James Franklin arrived at Penn State, matchups against Ohio State have been some of the most dramatic and thrilling in program history. From a 31-24 double overtime loss in 2014 to last year's magical 24-21 thriller, so much has changed from then to now.
"I think our team has steadily just grown over the last four years in a lot of different ways and a lot of different experiences to get to this point," Franklin said earlier this week. "But again, there are no moral victories, but I do think there are lessons. There are lessons that are learned in every win and lessons that are learned in every loss, as long as you're willing to look at them and be honest with yourself."
For both Franklin and senior tight end Mike Gesicki, when looking at where the Nittany Lions are now compared to 2014, it all comes down to maturity.
"We have guys like myself, Trace [McSorley], Saeed [Blacknall], Jason [Cabinda], Marcus [Allen] and DaeSean [Hamilton]. A bunch of guys who were either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen for that game and are now either seniors or a redshirt junior as guys who have played a lot of football for us. I think taking those experiences that we've gone through in our past and taking some of those losses that we went through earlier in our career and remembering what went wrong in those game and the little things, trying to improve from that and use that to our advantage now, I think that all goes along with being a mature football team."
Regardless of maturity, there's no doubting the impending challenge in this week's assignment.
"A tremendous challenge there, tremendous respect and a great history between these two schools, I think that's probably going to be one of the biggest differences in this game is being able to go on the road and play one of the best teams in the country on the road in a tough environment," Franklin said. "It's one thing to win at home in a whiteout. It's one thing to win at home with College GameDay and 110,000 [people in the stands]. It's another thing to go on the road and do that. That's a challenge for our entire program."
What To Watch For -
1. It comes as no surprise that Penn State's special teams have been on display this year. In his Tuesday press conference, Franklin noted he was particularly pleased with improvements in field goal protection, while also giving credit to Blake Gillikin at Irvin Charles.
"Obviously Blake has just been fantastic," Franklin said in his Michigan review. "I would make the argument that the punt out of our end zone, and then to pin [his second punt] on the sideline - and Irvin Charles I think is probably playing as elite of a level as you possibly could play as gunner. The combination of Blake's punts and Irv going down there, you see a guy who is 6-foot-4, 230 pounds running down the field like that, he's been tremendous."
2. Among few critiques following the win against the Wolverines, Franklin did not that the Nittany Lions would need to do a better job in caging the quarterback. When asked about containing Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett from beating the Nittany Lions with his legs, defensive tackle Curtis Cothran noted it will certainly present a challenge.
"Definitely just try to keep a good cage on him," Cothran said. "A lot of times with a lot of those good runs it's either the defensive linemen doesn't rush up the right angle, or the linebacker blitzes at the wrong angle, so it's just going to be trying to keep him caged. It's definitely a challenge, J.T. Barrett is a great athlete. He's been at Ohio State for a long time, he's seen a lot of football."
3. Penn State's improving offensive line will also be tested against the strength of a deep and experienced Ohio State defensive line. With 96 starts between seven Buckeyes, that also including returning freshman All-Americans Nick Bosa. With a team-high 10.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks, Bosa is part of an Ohio State defense that ranks sixth nationally with 8.5 TFLs per game, with the d-line accounting for 35.5 on the year.
"People were saying last week against Michigan that we were playing two good defensive ends and [Maurice] Hurst in the middle at nose tackle," offensive lineman Ryan Bates said. "They were saying that they are the best d-line in the country but personally, I think Ohio State, their d-line, they rotate a lot of people and I think they're the best d-line in the country per say, just from my perspective."
What To Watch For -
1. Earlier this week, Franklin noted that experienced Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett is playing with a lot of confidence. Within the five-game winning streak, Barrett is completing 72 percent of his passes for 1,351 yards with an 18-0 touchdown to interception ratio. The Buckeyes are also averaging 53.1 points per game since a Sept. 9 loss to then-No. 9 Oklahoma.
"I mean you have to just completely respect everything that that guy's been able to do in his career and everything I know about him and have heard about him, he's a class act," Franklin said. "So that's going to be a challenge for us because he can beat you with his legs, he can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his mind."
2. Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said Thursday the Nittany Lions would have to be conscious of true freshman running back J.K. Dobbins. More than just Dobbins though, the Nittany Lions won't be singling anyone out.
While Dobbins is averaging 7.8 yards per carry with five touchdowns and 775 yards on 100 carries, Mike Weber has four touchdowns with 227rushing yards, sidelined only due to injury early in the season.
"We recruited J.K. Dobbins and I think Coach Huff said about two months ago that he'll be the starting running back before the season is over," Franklin said. "That's no disrespect to Mike Weber, we think he's fantastic too. I think that he's a special player. There's no doubt about it. He's playing behind a really good offensive line and a good scheme and just like us, they have a lot of weapons that you have to deal with, which is ideal for running backs."
3. As Franklin also mentioned earlier this week, Meyer has assembled a staff that's loaded with individuals who also possess head coaching experience. His take on a just a few of the former head coaching staffers, below.
"Their defensive coordinator, Greg Schiano, obviously very familiar with him and his reputation as a guy who's been a college and NFL head coach. Their offensive coordinator, Kevin Wilson, again you have a guy who was a successful college head coach in our conference," Franklin said.
The Final Word -
Saturday's matchup marks the eighth time the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes have meet as top 10 opponents and the all-time series within the stretch is quite close. As Penn State preps for its highest ranked Big Ten game since 1997, Ohio State leads top 10 matchups between the two teams 4-3. The last time Penn State and Ohio State met as ranked opponents though, it was the then-No. 3 Nittany Lions who emerged with a 13-6 win against then-No. 9 Ohio State Oct. 25, 2008 in Columbus.