October 16, 2015
by Bob Cohn
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Much talk this week about Ohio State’s pair of talented quarterbacks and how they’re used, and super running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Buckeyes’ perceived underachieving despite their 6-0 record, 19 straight wins (26 in the Big Ten) and continued No. 1 ranking.
All are pertinent subjects, but what about the defense?
Simply, it’s very good, although the numbers might not necessarily reflect that, just as as the overall lackluster effort to date (i.e., being challenged by weak teams) likely does not indicate how good — or great — this team is, or can be. Ohio State currently ranks 19th in total defense, which is OK, and 55th in rushing defense, roughly middle of the pack, but the Bucks are yielding 3.52 yards per rush, which is OK, too. (Penn State is at 3.02)
The real reason for the higher-than-expected rush defense number is Ohio State’s opponents are running way more (260 attempts) than most other teams’ opponents, partly to keep the ball away from that explosive offense. Also, the Buckeyes rank sixth overall in pass efficiency defense. And one more thing. Ohio State has faced, and had trouble with, some good, running quarterbacks. No worries in that regard Saturday, though. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, despite flashing the ability to tuck the ball in and take off on occasion, is not a running quarterback.
The opinion here is the matchup of Penn State’s offense with the Buckeyes’ defense, particularly its front seven and even more specifically, its front four, will most determine the game’s outcome. The Nittany Lions’ defense is pretty good, too, and should have some success containing a potent offense, but Penn State will still need to score. And so far, that is not a given. That’s why the greatest PSU concern probably is how a still-erratic offensive line handles a nasty pass rush led by defensive ends Joey Bosa, the 2014 Big Ten defensive player of the year, and Tyquan Lewis.
Bosa, who sacked Hackenberg on the final play to seal the Buckeyes’ double-overtime win last season, has predictably been getting a lot of attention and recorded his first sack only last week against Maryland. But Bosa pinned some of that on himself.
“I think I’m getting to the quarterback a lot,” he told reporters this week. “Maybe not bringing him down, it’s been pretty annoying getting there so many times and not coming up with the sack or the sack and a half, whatever it is. I think I’ve been playing well.”
More than ever, Bosa is moving around the defensive front, primarily inside to a tackle position, causing further headaches for offensive linemen. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash told reporters that “some of the things we do on third down are a little unique and different when you’re not counting on them to run the football.”
This is not good news for a Penn State line that has been inconsistent all season – especially tackle Paris Palmer, still trying to figure things out after transferring from junior college — and still has health issues (center Angelo Mangiro missed last week’s Indiana game after suffering an undisclosed injury the previous week).
All this highlights the urgency for Penn State to somehow avoid obvious passing situations. One proven method is to run effectively, which is why it would be no surprise to see freshman sensation Saquon Barkley return to action at running back after missing the last 2 1/2 games with a “lower-leg injury.” Akeel Lynch, the usual starter and more of an inside runner, might also play. He would help, too.
Against the Buckeyes’ corners, who play press coverage and abandon all run support, Hackenberg will want to take some shots downfield, as he did against Indiana. Not only must he get good blocking, obviously, a strong run game opens up possibilities with play-action. All eyes will be on Palmer, who has been playing left tackle (Andrew Nelson, now healthy, might return to the position), and the other linemen, but Barkley’s importance to the passing game is huge.