Penn State head coach James Franklin will lead his Nittany Lions against Ohio State for the 10th time in his career this coming Saturday. He currently holds a 1-8 record against the Buckeyes, but this may be the best defense Penn State has brought into any of those previous nine contests.
The Nittany Lions have the nation’s No. 1 total defense and the No. 2 scoring defense. They also lead the nation in yards per play allowed (3.42). They have shutouts this season against Iowa and Massachusetts.
While the defense has been impressive, they’ve done it against the Nos. 91, 77, 128, 126, and 68 offenses in the country in terms of yards per play, as well as an FCS team in Delaware. And that No. 68 team is the UMass squad they just beat 63-0 last weekend.
Franklin knows that this Ohio State offense is going to be a much different animal than what his defense has seen to this point.
“Ryan Day, a ton of respect for Ryan and Ohio State as a whole,” Franklin said of OSU’s head coach. “When you look at who they are, offensively Brian Hartline being one of the most respected wide receiver coaches in the country and recruiter. This year, has become the offensive coordinator.
“Offensively I think Ryan is still heavily involved in what they’re doing, but they’re continuing to do a really good job. They are still a spread offense. They will go tempo as well, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s all they do. A lot of times they’re trying to get a look at the defense.”
Players come and go in college, but Day has created a consistent and explosive offensive attack at Ohio State. It begins with scheme and preparation, but can only go so far without the proper personnel.
And when it comes to previewing the Buckeyes, Franklin can go on and on.
“You talk about personnel, obviously it starts with Marvin Harrison. We’re very familiar with him. Everybody in the country is. Tremendous, tremendous player,” he said. “TreVeyon Henderson, the running back. Cade Stover is probably the guy that I don’t think is getting enough attention and enough love. He’s been a very productive player for them; has elite ball skills.
“Emeka Egbuka, another guy that we’ve got a ton of respect for. Miyan Williams, the running back. Some guys we left out based on we’re not sure if they’re going to play or not, but a ton of the guys we got respect for.”
The first name that Franklin mentioned is the first name that everybody mentions — Marvin Harrison, Jr.
Harrison leads the Big Ten with 100.7 yards receiving per game. His 31 catches and five touchdown receptions are second-most in the conference. Harrison has four 100-yard receiving games this season, scoring touchdowns in each of those four games.
What is it that Franklin likes about the top wide receiver on most NFL teams’ draft boards?
“Well, I think number one, the thing that jumps out to me is his body control and ball skills,” he said. “He’s got the ability to contort his body in the positions and catch the ball effortlessly. I think that’s the first thing. The other thing, he’s just smooth and fluid. You know, a guy that you guys are familiar with that I think was smooth and fluid similar to him is[former PSU receiver] Jahan [Dotson]. The difference is this guy is doing it at 6’3″, 6’4”.
“It’s interesting, you watch him on tape and he looks like he’s got good size, but when you see him in person he’s a big dude. And I think it’s his consistency. He’s just consistently made plays. Obviously he makes spectacular plays, but he makes the routine plays as well. So he’s obviously somebody that we got to be aware of at all times. We got a ton of respect for him and how they use him.”
Even with the skill talent like Harrison on hand, the Buckeye offense has not been as explosive as past offenses under Day. They still lead the Big Ten in total offense at 443 yards per game, but they’re scoring nearly two touchdowns per game fewer through six games this season (36.0) than they did a year ago (48.8).
Part of that can be ascribed to Ohio State replacing three starters on the offensive line a year ago. Some of that can also be put on the doorstep of the Buckeyes having to replace quarterback CJ Stroud, who was the No. 2 pick of the 2023 NFL Draft.
There is a learning curve to all of this. The Buckeye offensive line is figuring that out, as is new starting quarterback Kyle McCord.
Despite the learning, McCord leads the Big Ten in passing yardage (275.2 ypg), and is second in both passing efficiency (165.87) and yards per attempt (9.7).
Franklin sees a guy who is becoming more veteran by the day.
“Yeah, obviously a big arm. He’s a good sized guy. Been in their system for a while, so understands their system,” he said. “He’s surrounded with a ton of talent, wide receivers, tight ends. I think I told you guys I love their tight end. He’s been extremely productive. He’s doing what he needs to do for them to be successful offensively and win games.
“If you look at his touchdown-to-interception ratio (11:1), really good. Really good. So I’m not surprised obviously. His high school coach is on our staff. You know, we recruited him. We know a lot about him. We had a ton of respect for him out of high school and continue to. We think he’s going to be a challenge for us on Saturday as well.”