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Scouting Penn State-Ohio State: Experts weigh in on the showdown at the 'Shoe
PSU and OSU appear to be as evenly matched as ever. Is this the year the Nittany Lions get over the hump? We turn to scouts and opposing coaches for their insight on both teams.
Last season, the Big Ten got two teams into the College Football Playoff and had a Rose Bowl winner. That Rose Bowl winner, Penn State, finished 11-2 but came away from 2022 with something of an empty feeling, having lost to CFP participants Michigan and Ohio State.
All three teams are undefeated entering the eighth full weekend of this season, with Penn State and Ohio State meeting in the first game of the trio’s round-robin affair this fall. (The Nittany Lions host Michigan on Nov. 11, while the Wolverines host the Buckeyes on Nov. 25.)
In 2016, Penn State won a three-way tiebreaker to represent the East division in the Big Ten title game, where it went on to win the conference; Ohio State, which it beat, went to the Playoff after beating Michigan.
Could a similar fate await these three teams in six weeks?
“It’s gonna be a hell of a race between those three teams down the stretch,” said a pro scout who has evaluated the Big Ten. “I don’t know who’s better than who. All three are darn good and can beat each other. It’s gonna come down to what’s the game plan going into the game and how do 18-to-22 year olds execute?
“So if anyone tries to tell me that Ohio State is better than Michigan or Penn State, I say maybe. If someone says Penn State is better, I say maybe. I think they’re all at this point pretty comparable. It’ll have to play itself out.”
The Inside Zone surveyed a handful of scouts and coaches who are familiar with both Penn State and Ohio State to break down Saturday’s matchup in Columbus.
One consensus: This year is as close as these teams have been from a talent standpoint since James Franklin took over in Happy Valley in 2014.
Will that be enough for the Nittany Lions, though?
“Penn State’s quarterback (Drew Allar) I think is better than last year’s (Sean Clifford), and the offense is a year older,” said a college coach who is familiar with both teams. “If the game was (in State College), I think they’d have a distinct advantage. But I think they can win this game. I think Penn State can beat them, 100 percent. I think Penn State is a better version of Notre Dame right now. They probably have better overall team speed, and if the quarterback can play anywhere close to how he can, they can beat them.”
The quarterback situation is one more wrinkle to this showdown. Allar, a sophomore and former blue-chip prospect from Ohio, is in his first year starting for Penn State. He has exhibited sound decision-making, completing 65.2 percent of his passes and throwing 12 touchdowns against zero interceptions.
Kyle McCord, a Philadelphia native, is in his first year starting for Ohio State. And while he leads the Big Ten in passing (275.2 ypg), and he led a game-winning drive at Notre Dame, he lacks the dynamic skill set of his three predecessors at the position, each of whom was a first-round NFL Draft pick.
“I was more impressed by McCord than I was led to believe,” said a coach who faced Ohio State this year. “I thought he was gonna be this shell of himself where he can’t really throw, but I felt like they at least let him do some things.”
Said the pro scout: “They’re really freaking good. If they had C.J. Stroud this year they’d be a national title contender. If they had better than they have now (at QB), they’d be a legit contender. I think Kyle McCord has gotten better each week, but he has to continue to get better.”
McCord beat a top-15 defense in Notre Dame. Penn State’s defense is No. 1 nationally in both yards per game and yards per play. (Ohio State’s defense is No. 2 in the latter category.)
The Nittany Lions lead the nation in sacks per game and are No. 3 in rushing defense. Their 13 takeaways are tied for the Big Ten lead. The Buckeyes have taken a step back on the offensive line from last season, allowing 10 sacks so far, and have been banged up in the backfield, which partially explains why they rank 94th nationally in rushing.
“The offensive line has not gotten better, and I think Manny Diaz is an extremely aggressive defensive coordinator, going back to when he was at Texas,” said the first coach. “You’re gonna get pressure a lot on first and second down, and he’ll get to the exotic stuff on third down.”
Of the secondary, the coach added: “Penn State does a really good job of playing really handsy. They grab well. They don’t get a lot of penalties called on them. They’re very aggressive with their hands and they do a really good job of it, and I mean that in a good way. It gives you problems.”
The Lions’ defense has multiple projected first-round picks in corner Kalen King and edge rusher Chop Robinson. How far that will go against a receiving corps led by all-everything wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. remains to be seen. (Emeka Egbuka’s status remains uncertain after missing the Purdue game with a leg injury.)
“That Penn State defense has a bunch of dudes, but Ryan Day is too good in these situations,” said a coach who has faced Penn State this season. “He can scheme these defenses up better than anyone I know. He catches a lot of heat, but I think he schemes the s— out of them Saturday.”
Offensively, Penn State has yet to show a downfield passing threat. Its schedule has been uneven (77th nationally, per Sagarin), so it is unclear if this has been by design or because of a lack of trust in Allar and his receivers.
“They’ve got that ability, I just don’t know that they’ve had to do it yet,” said another coach who has faced Penn State this season. “Can they? Yes they can. To of what success, I don’t know. I think that is the unknown, is if it gets into a game where you do have to push the ball down the field, can they do it?”
Added the first coach who has faced Penn State: “If Ohio State can score early and force Penn State to force its passing game, I don’t think (Penn State) could do that.”
The first coach compared Penn State to a modern Big Ten West team in style: Strong defense, talented running backs and a mistake-free quarterback.
Could that be enough against an Ohio State offense that, for all of its shortcomings, still leads the Big Ten in yards per game?
“I don’t know why (OC) Mike Yurcich hasn’t opened it up; even with (Sean) Clifford they did quite a bit,” said the coach. “Now they’ve got two really good backs. And this is probably one of their better offensive lines, but that’s not saying a lot at all, especially after last year, which was very underwhelming. Mike Yurcich typically is a very balanced guy doing a lot of things.
“I don’t know, O don’t have a good answer. Maybe it’s how they think they need to win right now. Maybe they don’t think they can win on the outside. Maybe they haven’t needed it, but you’re definitely gonna need it against these guys. Now, I do think they can run the ball on these guys. For whatever reason, I don’t think Ohio State’s linebackers have played extremely well. Tommy (Eichenberg) is still a really good linebacker, but there are times you can pop a run on him and not gash him, but once a quarter you get one for 10 yards and that can change momentum a little bit.”
This is arguably the biggest game of Franklin’s Penn State tenure, as he has what most believe is his most talented team to date. Franklin is just 1-8 against Ohio State, a record that stings even more when looking back at his close losses to the Buckeyes in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Penn State led Ohio State with nine minutes left in last year’s game, too, before falling 44-31.
Perspective is needed, of course, as the Lions were just 7-14 against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten era before Franklin was hired. (They were just 7-10 against Michigan, too. Franklin is 3-6 against the Wolverines.)
Perspectives differ when projecting how this game will play out, too.
“Ohio State’s defense is better overall than last year, but I almost have this feeling like I’m waiting for them to crack, and that’s mainly because I thought the defensive line would get more pressure than they have and they really haven’t, other than a few times,” the first coach said. “I don’t know how many good offensive lines they’ve faced. Obviously Notre Dame’s O-line was really good, but they weren’t threatened with the pass game as much in that game.
“They’re playing a lot of man coverage. If you can make these DBs live on an island a little bit, they can get beat. It comes down to 50-50 balls and winning your routes in man coverage. If Allar can do that, they can definitely win. I think they actually could win pretty significantly. Now, that might mean by 14 points, not a blowout, but I think their D is good enough, because I haven’t seen enough from Kyle McCord to really warrant belief. Even in the second half of the Maryland game, when they really took control, he’s been underwhelming so far, which is kind of what I expected.”
And yet, one of the coaches who has faced Penn State this year sees matters unfolding entirely differently this weekend in the ‘Shoe, which only adds to the intrigue of this top-10 matchup.
“I think they’re not what they’re cracked up to be,” the coach said of Penn State. “If Allar is on, they have a chance. If he’s off even a tiny bit, they have no chance. I don’t think they’ll run the ball on Ohio State. I think the offensive line is overrated.
“I think people are thinking this is the year Penn State is gonna get them and be back. I don’t see it. I see Ohio State winning by two touchdowns.”