Penn State

Q&A: Patient Penn State Offense, Dominating Defense Will Be Test For Buckeyes

The biggest game of the season to this point is just one day away for Penn State and Ohio State. The No. 7 Nittany Lions take on the No. 3 Buckeyes, with the winner having an immediate upper hand in the College Football Playoff race.

Buckeye Huddle has covered game week from the Ohio State side of things, but it’s always better to get the insight from somebody who covers the other side on a daily basis as well. Which is why we’ve asked’s Ben Jones to help us out in a question and answer segment about the Nittany Lions.

The questions are mine. The answers are Ben’s. If you’d like to see the inverse of this, you can check out Ben’s questions about the Buckeyes and my answers right here.

There is so much talk about the lack of explosive pass plays this season. How much of that is because of 1) a young quarterback not wanting to make a mistake; 2) a lack of explosive receivers; 3) defenses simply keeping safeties deep and not allowing anything downfield; 4) it’s just not been necessary? Have there been opportunities where Drew Allar could have let some go but didn’t? 

Yes. To tackle these in order – Drew isn’t afraid of making throws but he’s perfectly happy to just take what is there. I can probably count on one hand the number of times he has forced a throw and that has really been his operating procedure all year – take what is there. 

As far as receivers, KeAndre Lambert-Smith has proven to be a capable No. 1 option but he’s not quite yet a Jahan Dotson type that can just go get a ball for you, at least not at that level. The return of Harrison Wallace should be a big change on that front after missing all of Penn State’s Big Ten games so far. The two of them entered the season basically as 1a and 1b and his return makes a big difference in opening up the defense. Beyond those two there have been a lot of guys who are capable but nobody who is really keeping the No. 3 spot on a weekly basis.

From a defensive standpoint teams are definitely happy to keep a top on things so there have been limited opportunities for the most part. But to feed into your last two points, Penn State has been happy to sit on the ball, run for 5-8 yards and pass for 5-10 a clip, there isn’t a team in America that doesn’t want big chunk plays but Penn State has been happy to score 30+ without them. Finally, Drew has missed wide open players twice on deep shots and maybe more if you look over the film which has led some people to question if he’s even looking for them at times. Hard to say, but Saturday will be informative.

Everybody knows about LT Olu Fashanu, so what else should we know about this offensive line? 

I think the lack of explosive plays has hurt this group’s rep but to me they’ve been solid all year. JB Nelson is set to return at guard after missing last week with an injury. Penn State lost Landon Tengwell at the start of the season due to a medical retirement but Penn State saw that coming for months so it wasn’t a huge shock to the system. This line is obviously Olu’s but Penn State has only given up four sacks all year and that’s a group effort.

Just based on numbers, it looks like Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen have taken a step back this year. Why is that? Is this a product of the offensive line? Is it fair to say this team is having some running game struggles when they lead the Big Ten in rushing? 

It’s a strange problem for Penn State because it has lacked those big plays but it is also getting 4-5-6 yards a clip in the first half and more physical runs in the second. There’s something to be said for leading the Big Ten in rushing because you won’t stop rushing but Penn State is doing a good job just getting yardage each time the ball is snapped. So far this season Penn State has only given up 22 tackles for a loss which is fifth-best in the nation. Of course technically gaining a yard isn’t much better than losing one but I think even with the lack of explosiveness Penn State has been happy to let these two just ground and pound people. It has paid off in the second half – see the Iowa game – in which Penn State basically just dared the Hawkeyes to stop them on the ground, and they couldn’t. Ohio State isn’t Iowa [thank god] but that’s not a bad front to move around.

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Where’s the soft part of this defense, relatively speaking? Illinois had some success with spreading things out and throwing quick passes (when they weren’t intercepted), but is dinking and dunking your way down the field too much to ask of an offense against this defense?

Quick passes are the way to go if you want to avoid the pass rush, that being said Penn State is going to be very happy if Ohio State decides to use Marvin Harrison exclusively in short passing situations. Early in the season there appeared to be some issues with the interior of the line and stopping the run but that has improved greatly and Ohio State probably isn’t the team this year to take advantage of that fact even if it still was the case. I think mostly to beat this defense you have to be patient. That’s not really specific to Penn State but generally what you need to do against a group that isn’t terribly weak in any one area. If I’m Ohio State I’m just giving Marvin Harrison his chances to make plays and hoping my protection can hold up long enough that he can get into space. Having the best receiver in America helps the game plan.

How much of Penn State’s opportunistic defense has been because of 1) a play-making defense; and 2) bad throws by opposing quarterbacks? This team seems to make use of just about every gift that is given to them. 

It’s funny that you ask this because the Illinois game in particular was so “why would you even throw that?” that you had to almost give Penn State less credit for the turnovers. I don’t think this group is as inherently ball-hawking as it was last year [Penn State led the nation last year in passes broken up and is 103rd this season] but everyone out there has good hands and good technique. I think to a certain extent teams have been so concerned about Penn State’s coverage that they just don’t pass it, this defense has seen 159 pass attempts this year, 8th fewest in the nation. So in that light Penn State is doing a good job making the most of what it gets, bad quarterbacks notwithstanding.

Bonus: Drew Allar now has 241 passes in his career without an interception. Is he due?

He should have been picked against West Virginia so that streak shouldn’t have gotten that high, but probably. That being said he very rarely forces the issue so that number is pretty representative of his overall play and decision making. We all make mistakes though.

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