Can Penn State shock Ohio State again? Probably not, but here's the formula

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Saturday, November 23, 2019

James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores seemed to relish the underdog role. In Franklin's three years as head coach in Nashville, Vanderbilt was listed as an underdog 18 times, covered 11 times and won straight up six times. TheCommodores were seven-point underdogs when they won at Missouri in 2012 and beat Georgia at home in 2013. They were 10.5-point 'dogs at Florida -- where they hadn't won in nearly seven decades -- late in 2013. They won 34-17.

Central to Vandy's underdog exploits was the simple ability to pounce. Whatever mistakes the Dores were granted -- special-teams miscues, turnovers, whatever -- they maximized. "Be opportunistic" isn't as reliable a winning strategy as "Be supremely talented and efficient," but it can make up a lot of ground.

The underdog vibe hasn't been quite as strong since Franklin left for Penn State in 2014. His Nittany Lions have been 'dogs just 19 times in nearly twice as many games, and while they've won as underdogs five times, they've only done so once when they were projected to lose by more than 2.5 points.

That one win, however, came against Ohio State in 2016. They were 19-point 'dogs.

Despite the fact that the 2016 game was in Happy Valley, not Columbus, it's not hard to draw reference to that game right now being that, despite their top-10 status, the No. 8 Nittany Lions are currently 17.5-point underdogs to one of the most statistically incredible Ohio State teams on record.

How Ohio State became Ohio State! again

Earlier this week, I wrote about how the No. 2 Buckeyes' performance to date has mirrored some of the most renowned teams in recent college football history -- 1995 Nebraska and 2001 Miami, to name two. Ohio State nearly is without proven weakness. Since this performance is coming from a team that has won the national title and earned multiple College Football Playoff bids in the past five seasons, it momentarily makes sense. Ohio State is one of the nation's elite recruiters and power programs. Of course the Buckeyes are this good, right?

It's easy to forget, however, how out of sorts the Buckeyes seemed at times last year. The defense, beset by breakdowns and big-play issues, ranked a wholly mortal 26th in defensive SP+. The offense featured one of the most efficient passing games in the country, but the run game was glitchier than normal, and a lot of the pieces of that great passing attack -- including quarterback Dwayne Haskins and wide receivers Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin -- are gone. So is Urban Meyer, who had maybe enjoyed a more concentrated run of success than any head coach in school history.

While it was obvious the Buckeyes were going to be good in 2019, there was reason to think they might not play a serious role in the national title race. The offseason was filled with "This is Michigan's year!" takes, after all, and the Buckeyes were ranked in the teens in the preseason FPI projections.

It was obvious from nearly the opening snap of the season, however, that last year's issues had been alleviated. The addition of blue-chip quarterback and Georgia transfer Justin Fields meant the act of replacing Haskins wasn't going to be particularly fraught, and veteran wideoutsK.J. Hill, Binjimen Victorand Austin Mack assured that the continuity in the receiving corps was still high. Some new blood solidified an offensive line that has given star backJ.K. Dobbinsall the assistance he needs.

Ohio State's 2019 offense is beautiful and interchangeable. Fields can run but hasn't had to much; Dobbins and backupMaster Teague IIIhave combined for 2,033 yards and 17 touchdowns; and the receiving corps features three go-to guys in Hill, Victor and sophomore Chris Olave, plus three more wideouts with at least 100 receiving yards. (Dobbins and tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell also have over 100 receiving yards.) All of these wideouts are capable of going deep or catching short, quick passes, and all have been asked to do both. The result: Ohio State is first in rushing SP+, sixth in passing SP+, fourth in standard downs SP+ and third in passing downs SP+. Ridiculous.

The defense has been the surprise, however. New co-coordinators Jeff Hafley (an NFL position coach for the previous seven years) and Greg Mattison (a veteran line coach and cagey old hand) have been able to build a friendly structure for the loads of blue-chippers they inherited. And a lot of the freshmen and sophomores who struggled with glitches and missed tackles last year are now far more experienced and sound sophomores and juniors. The Buckeyes rank third in marginal explosiveness allowed and are giving up just 2.4 gains per game of 20-plus yards (last year: 4.8).

It appears Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day has thus far bridged the gap between continuity and change perfectly. The offensive staff has remained about the same and has figured out how to get a few key new pieces rolling. The defensive staff, which featured far more turnover, has shored up previous weaknesses in a veteran unit. Sprinkle in an absurd breakout performance from defensive end Chase Young (13.5 sacks, 14 run stuffs, five forced fumbles) and --poof --you have the best team in the country.

Lessons from 2016

Franklin has made it no secret that he uses Ohio State as something of a measuring stick for his program. After last year's gut-wrenching, one-point home loss to the Buckeyes (their second defeat in a row to OSU by a single point), he went into a noteworthy soliloquy after the game about the difference between great and elite programs.

"We've gone from an average football team to a good football team to a great football team, but we're not an elite team yet," he told media. "The work that it's going to take to get to an elite program is going to be just as hard as the ground and the distance that we've already traveled to get there."

The two losses were both heartbreakers, but they were even more painful considering the Nittany Lions had, at least briefly, cleared the Buckeyes hurdle earlier in his tenure.

The 2016 victory was a launchpad of sorts, vaulting the Lions into a Big Ten competition they would eventually win. And they followed a nearly perfect upset script to get there.

Win the big-play battle. PSU's offense was rendered inefficient by a strong Ohio State defense and managed just a 30% success rate for the game. (The national success rate average in 2016 was 42%.) But the Lions rendered OSU just as inefficient (29%) and gashed the Buckeyes with big plays when they got the chance.

PSU's first touchdown came on a 20-yard strike to Chris Godwin and was set up by a 34-yarder to DaeSean Hamilton. The second TD was set up by a 35-yard pass to Saeed Blacknall. In all, PSU logged six gains of 20-plus yards to OSU's four. It didn't matter that, while those six plays gained 179 yards, their other 54 gained 97. They bundled their big plays to maximum effect.

Create negative plays. Havoc plays are one hell of an equalizer, and PSU's 11 tackles for loss played a big role in keeping Ohio State in third-and-longs -- and out of the end zone. The Buckeyes created only six TFLs of their own.

Special-teams explosions. Ohio State created the first big special-teams breaks of the game, blocking an early PSU field goal attempt and happily taking advantage of a mishandled punt snap to score on a safety late in the third quarter. PSU made the biggest mark with under five minutes left, though, when Marcus Allenblocked a field goal attempt and Grant Haley took it 60 yards for the go-ahead score. Special teams cost PSU five points early, then gave PSU seven points late.

This isn't the script for every upset the planet has ever seen (typically turnovers are more involved), but based on PSU's own strengths, it probably is the most likely upset path this time around. The Nittany Lions are sixth in marginal explosiveness, so they clearly can make big plays. They're 12th in defensive havoc rate (total tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles divided by total plays), so they are capable of creating negative plays. They're ninth in Special Teams SP+, so theoretically they could take advantage of whatever breaks they get there (though Ohio State is a not-terrible 17th).

Still, this is an easier script to describe than execute against a team like Ohio State.

Justin Fields does take sacks, though

What's the most damaging type of tackle for loss from a yardage perspective? A sack. What has a decent correlation to overall forced fumbles? A sack. What is Fields' lone weakness to date as Ohio State's QB? Taking sacks.

Ohio State ranks 86th in sack rate allowed, 96th on passing downs and 117th on blitz downs (which I define as second-and-super-long or third-and-5 or more). Fields has been so natural in his new offense, and his receivers are so frequently open, that he rarely has to go to Plan B, and he takes a little too much time switching gears. It has been this way all season -- it was the only improvement I could find for them to make in October -- and hasn't really changed.

This and PSU's ability to force negative run plays -- the Nittany Lions are stuffing 27% of non-sack rushes at or behind the line, fifth in the country -- represent by far the Nittany Lions' biggest opportunity. As good as Ohio State's offense has been, and as efficient as it will be even on Saturday, negative plays are reliable drive killers.

Drives that feature zero run stuffs or sacks: 2.72 points per possession in FBS in 2019

Drives that feature one stuff or sack: 1.66

Drives that feature two or more: 1.50

This trend is multiplied for Ohio State this year:

Ohio State drives that feature zero stuffs or sacks: 5.03 points per possession

Drives that feature one stuff or sack: 2.71

Drives that feature two or more: 0.89

Negative plays lead to passing downs, and passing downs lead to the end of drives. That's mostly true even for otherworldly offenses.

What has to happen vs. what is most likely to happen

For Penn State to win, it appears that the Nittany Lions will have to lean heavily on the 2016 script.

1. Take advantage of whatever big-play chances they give you. We're still waiting to find out whether PSU receiver KJ Hamler will play on Saturday after suffering a head/neck injury against Indiana last week. It would obviously help if he were ready. The 5-foot-9 junior is one of the most dangerous receivers in the country, averaging 17.2 yards per catch with an efficient 53% success rate. Still, the Lions have Hamler clone Jahan Dotson (18.7 yards per catch, 56% success rate) and tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers (combined: 40 catches, mostly from Freiermuth, 14.6 yards per catch, 61% success rate). There are a lot of explosive playmakers at quarterback Sean Clifford's disposal.

These guys (Hamler in particular) can get open against even the best secondary. Clifford will be harangued and hurried for most of Saturday, but when he gets a chance to throw downfield, and one of these receivers gets open, it has to result in an explosive play.

To that same end, running back Journey Brown is probably going to find the going tough and inefficient against this sturdy Ohio State front, but he still might get a chance or two at something big. He simply has to take advantage.

2. Attack, attack, attack. Opponents sack Fields 7.3% of the time and stuff Ohio State runs 12% of the time. PSU needs those numbers to be at least 12% and 18%, respectively. Negative plays are just about the only theoretical advantage PSU has, and Ohio State does not respond well when it suffers negative plays. These two categories have to be big wins for the Nittany Lions, especially considering the correlation between passing-downs pass attempts and interceptions as well as the correlation between sacks and fumbles.

3. Create at least one special-teams explosion. OSU's special-teams unit is fine, but Penn State's is top-10. Be it a blocked kick or a big return from Hamler, something big needs to happen here. PSU punter Blake Gillikin also needs to outdo counterpart Drue Chrisman, buying back some field position for what will probably be an inefficient offense.

This is what has to happen for PSU. What will happen? Dobbins likely will enjoy enough run success that Fields won't be in too many awkward downs and distances -- which likely will set up some downfield shots such as the ones Minnesota and Indiana have both hurt Penn State with in recent weeks -- and Clifford will end up facing far more pass pressure than Fields. (That's doubly true with Young back from a two-game suspension.) Ohio State will simply leverage PSU behind schedule, tilt the field and wait.

SP+ projects a closer game than Las Vegas does -- something in the neighborhood of a 34-20 Buckeyes win.

Franklin has done a fabulous job of building PSU's talent levels and depth; and while he only has beaten Ohio State once, he also is only a couple of plays from a three-game winning streak against the Buckeyes. Still, this is a different Ohio State team, and this game will probably see a different, far less close, result.

Week 13 playlist

Here are 10 games -- at least one from each weekend time slot -- you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both an information and entertainment perspective.

All times Eastern


Colorado State at Wyoming (9:30 p.m., ESPN2). OK, yes, this is basically the only game in this window, but it's a good opportunity to catch a Wyoming team that nearly took down both Boise State and Utah State in its past two games. Colorado State has improved over the past month too.

SP+ projection: UW 29, CSU 22

Early Saturday (besides Penn State-Ohio State)

Harvard at Yale (noon, ESPNU). The only thing better than The Game is The Game With Consequences. Yale still could snare the Ivy League title with a win and a Dartmouth loss to Brown. (Dartmouth won't be losing to Brown, but let's not worry about that right now.)

SP+ projection: Harvard 30, Yale 26

Saturday afternoon

Texas A&M at No. 4 Georgia (3:30 p.m., CBS). A&M has been playing awfully solid ball of late, treating mediocre SEC teams like straight bad ones. If UGA has taken its foot off the gas at all after locking up the SEC East title, this game could become a proverbial hornet's nest.

SP+ projection: UGA 32, A&M 19

Texas at No. 14 Baylor (3:30 p.m., FS1). Call it the Who Responds Better to Heartbreaking Disappointment Bowl. I guess that's too long a title, as both of these teams need a quick rebound after last-minute losses -- Baylor to keep its tiny national title hopes alive; Texas to keep a disappointing season from getting even worse.

SP+ projection: Baylor 35, Texas 26

No. 13 Michigan at Indiana (3:30 p.m., ESPN). The last time Indiana beat Michigan, current Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh was a rookie with the Chicago Bears, and Indiana coach Tom Allen had not yet enrolled at Maranatha Baptist University. The 1987 season was a long time ago, is what I'm saying. This IU team is excellent, but Michigan is hot.

SP+ projection: UM 28, IU 25

UCLA at No. 23 USC (3:30 p.m., ABC). Clay Helton's super young Trojans have won four of five and risen back to 24th in SP+. A 9-4 finish is still a possibility. So too is Helton getting fired after a loss to UCLA. The Bruins have won three of four, making this a really hard, tense game to get a grasp on.

SP+ projection: USC 40, UCLA 22. SP+ seems to think it has a perfectly fine grasp on the game.

SMU at Navy (3:30 p.m., CBSSN). These teams need Memphis to lose again to have a shot at the AAC West title, but even without division consequences, this one should be tremendous. SMU has a shot at an 11-1 finish; and despite last week's disappointing performance against Notre Dame, Navy still has a shot at 10-2.

SP+ projection: Navy 34, SMU 29

Saturday evening

Be sure to flip over to CBSSN at 7 to check out the oddity of Miami and FIU playing at Marlins Park. But once you've taken that in, the two headliners are pretty obvious.

Oregon at Arizona State (7:30 p.m., ABC). Of your primary CFP contenders, SP+ is by far the least sold on Oregon. But the Ducks have surged offensively, averaging 41 points per game over their past five. Still, this is a long road trip, and ASU is sturdy enough to scare an Oregon squad that doesn't bring its A-game.

SP+ projection: Ducks 32, Sun Devils 22

TCU at No. 9 Oklahoma (8 p.m., Fox). OU has had to empty its bag of tricks over the past two weeks, needing a monstrous comeback to beat Baylor a week after needing a last-minute 2-point conversion stop to beat Iowa State. TCU isn't quite up to that standard but is good enough to shake a tired Sooners team given the chance.

SP+ projection: OU 41, TCU 22

Late Saturday

No. 20 Boise State at Utah State (10:30 p.m., CBSSN) and SDSU at Hawaii (11 p.m., Facebook Video). Call this a two-for-one, because I can't decide which to recommend, and you can watch them at the same time. The SDSU-Hawaii game on your laptop is a winner-take-all battle for the MWC West crown, and a USU upset of Boise would devolve the MWC Mountain race into a potential three-way tie.

SP+ projections: BSU 32, USU 23; SDSU 27, Hawaii 24

Related Video