Just three weeks ago, Penn State was ranked above Ohio State in the AP Poll.
At the time, many Penn State fans believed this could be the year the Nittany Lions come out on top against the Buckeyes, for the first time since 2016.
Now, not so much.
The blue and white is coming off of two straight losses, while Ohio State will trot into the Horseshoe riding a five-game win-streak.
What does James Franklin believe is its greatest asset? An offense currently ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring offense.
“They are as explosive as any offense in the country right now,” Franklin said.
Senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said the Buckeyes’ wide receiver room — led by Chris Olave and Garret Wilson — is what sets the offense apart from other opponents.
Olave and Wilson were both selected to the All-Big Ten first team for their performances in 2020. This season, both currently sit in first and second place in receiving touchdowns in the Big Ten, respectively, while Wilson holds the No. 2 spot in receiving yards as well.
“They have talented receivers all around the board,” Castro-Fields said. “Guys who can make plays with the ball in the air and also make plays when they have the balls in their hands.”
Another player in the Buckeyes' receiving corps to keep an eye on is Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who has brought in 99+ receiving yards in each of his last two games despite being the No. 3 option.
“Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba are all receivers that can catch the short pass and take it the distance or have the ability to beat you over the top from the beginning,” Franklin said. “Very, very explosive.”
While Ohio State’s receiving core has impressed in 2021, its incorporation of the ground game is what has truly set the Buckeye offense apart since the Week 2 loss to Oregon.
Since the loss, true-freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson has gone under 72 rushing yards just once — a total a Penn State running back has only hit once all season.
Also a red zone threat, Henderson currently leads the conference in rushing touchdowns with 11.
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“The quarterback C.J. Stroud is playing with tremendous confidence, he's getting better every single week, obviously surrounded with a bunch of explosive players,” Franklin said. “TreVeyon Henderson I think has really changed him since his role has grown in the offense.”
If the Nittany Lions couldn’t hold Illinois running back Chase Brown to under 223 rushing yards — a Beaver Stadium record — finding an answer against Henderson is going to be quite difficult.
Determining what exactly went wrong for the blue and white against the Illini’s rushing attack, however, comes down to a lack of preparation against a new personnel formation.
Senior linebacker Ellis Brooks said a familiar personnel package from the Ohio State offense could serve Penn State kindly.
“In the Illinois game, we saw a formation that we weren’t entirely introduced to previously,” Brooks said. “But other than that, what they tended to be was 11 personnel. And that's usually where Ohio State likes to live, with 11 personnel.”
Eleven personnel or not, the blue and white will be served a challenge when they step foot in Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, Franklin said much of the Buckeyes’ success on the defensive end can be attributed to first-year secondary coach Matt Barnes, who has taken over as the play caller.
“I think he's done a really good job of playing sound, smart defense and allowing [his] players to play fast and aggressive,” Franklin said.
More specifically, Franklin said he’s impressed by defensive players Cody Simon, Haskell Garrett, Ronnie Hickman and Denzel Burke.
Burke, a true-freshman cornerback, will likely have the task of covering Penn State star wide receiver Jahan Dotson.
“He’s a pretty good receiver,” Burke said Wednesday. “Nothing I can’t handle though.”
While Burke was pretty clear with how he feels about the matchup with Dotson, the Nittany Lion receiver was more subtle in his response to a matchup with the Buckeyes secondary.
“It's a great opportunity for our team to go up against some guys that are very talented, just as good as us,” Dotson said. “It's an opportunity that you live for.”
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