COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the first time all season, Penn State will take the field as an underdog.
“I actually did not know that,” star tailback Saquon Barkley said after being told that oddsmakers don’t favor the Nittany Lions at Ohio State on Saturday.
There’s a number of reasons that the Lions, despite carrying a No. 2 national ranking into the showdown, are listed as six- or seven-point underdogs to the No. 6 Buckeyes.
It’s not just because the game is at The Horseshoe. After all, Ohio State already dropped a home game to a top-five opponent when Oklahoma left Columbus with a win in September.
But since that game, the Buckeyes have been on a historic pace. They’ve won five straight and become the highest-scoring team in the nation (47.3 points per game) in the process. More than just points, the Bucks have racked up 3,095 total yards during their streak — the most productive five-game stretch in the history of the program.
The offense has been getting more comfortable with new coordinator Kevin Wilson, the former Indiana head coach who has sped up the unit’s tempo.
On top of that, Ohio State was off last Saturday, giving head coach Urban Meyer extra time to prepare. Historically, that’s been a huge bonus for his teams, who have won 20 straight games following an open week.
For some added perspective, the last time Meyer lost in this situation was back when he was leading Bowling Green in 2001. The opponent was Miami (Ohio) and the opposing quarterback was a freshman named Ben Roethlisberger.
Speaking as a coach who just beat Michigan 42-13 coming off a bye, James Franklin didn’t downplay its importance.
“I think it helps a lot. There’s no doubt about it,” the Penn State coach said. “You just have more time for everything. More time to recover, more time to get healthy, more time to watch film and plan. It’s valuable. I think probably the most valuable thing we have on this earth is time, and a bye week creates that.”
And finally, there’s just plain ol’ psychology at work.
Ohio State lost to Penn State last season.
“You’ve got to figure you’re dealing with youngsters,” Meyer said Monday. “Is revenge a motivator? Hell yeah, it is.
“I’m not saying this will be it. There have been times we used (that as motivation), and we looked silly using it. And there are times it worked. I don’t know yet.”
THREE AND OUT
So those are the things that the Buckeyes have going in their favor. As for the Lions, their path to victory Saturday looks a lot like the one they used against the Wolverines.
It will start with pressure up front form the defensive line. Sean Spencer’s unit sacked Michigan’s John O’Korn seven times a week ago and brought down Ohio State star J.T. Barrett six times in last year’s meeting, including on both of the Bucks’ final two plays to seal the victory.
Easier said than done.
“J.T. Barrett is Houdini back there,” Spencer said. “So you can work on a lot of things to try and cage him up, but he’ll make something happen. So it’s just about lane integrity, rushing the quarterback — awareness not caution.”
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State is still a bit vulnerable in the secondary, as Oklahoma showed last month. That’s usually the case when a team must replace three first-round draft picks in the defensive backfield.
Two years ago at The Horseshoe, Barkley was the upstart freshman looking to compare himself with a Heisman Trophy candidate in Ezekiel Elliott.
Now it’s Barkley hunting for a Heisman while Ohio State debuts an impressive freshman in the series.
That would be J.K. Dobbins, a rookie from Texas who quickly won over Meyer during camp and is averaging 7.8 yards a carry, outshining incumbent Mike Weber.
Dobbins’ success doesn’t surprise Franklin or his running backs coach, Charles Huff.
“We recruited J.K. Dobbins,” Franklin said. “So I think actually Coach Huff said about two months ago that he’ll be the (Buckeyes’) starting running back before the season’s over. And that’s no disrespect to Mike Weber, we think he’s fantastic, too. So I think that (Dobbins) is a special player. There’s no doubt about it.”
Ohio State is advertising its counter to Penn State’s White Out by calling for its fans to dress all in black on Saturday. In the 2015 game, the Buckeyes had matching all-black uniforms to go with the occasion.
This time around, Ohio State’s alternate uniforms for the Penn state game are light gray helmets, jerseys and pants with dark gray stripes as accents. The team’s traditional scarlet will be represented in the players’ shoes, gloves and helmet stickers.
According to a report by WTOL in Toledo, Penn State had questioned the legality of the uniforms because of the lack of contrast between the dark gray numbers on the light gray jerseys.
Franklin said Tuesday he had called Meyer “three weeks ago about a rule that (they) were having a discussion about” and he “wanted to get his opinion on it,” but did not say if the uniforms were the topic.