On paper, Penn State’s defense looks to be one of the best in the country.
Not only are the Nittany Lions 17th in total defense (316.2 yards per game), but they also boast the fourth-best rushing defense in the country (75.9 yards per game) while also leading the nation in yards allowed per carry at 2.19 yards.
Those numbers, however, don’t tell the full story.
While Penn State has held its opponents under 150 total yards three times this season, it has also allowed more than 400 total yards four times, thanks in large part to a suspect pass defense.
“We haven't helped ourselves,” coach James Franklin said. “There's been sometimes where we've blown coverages, but the reality is that happens with everybody. It's a trickle-down effect. You may have a linebacker that misaligns, which affects the safety, which now affects the corner. That's what this week of preparation is about. We're going to have to match (Ohio State's) confidence on Saturday and we're going to have to match their play-making ability.”
For the Nittany Lions to stop the Buckeyes offense, they’ll need to do something no team has done this year — neutralize Justin Fields. Fields, who verbally committed to Penn State in 2016 before decommitting six months later, has thrown for 2,164 yards with 31 touchdowns and one interception.
“He’s a very talented guy,” said Franklin, who was deeply involved in Fields’ recruiting at Penn State. “Watching him in games, watching him in practice, throwing live, he checked a lot of boxes. Based on what I'm seeing on film right now, I think we were right. He's pretty good.”
In addition to having one of the best linebacking duos in the country in Micah Parsons and Cam Brown, the Nittany Lions have a plethora of difference-makers on the defensive line. They are led by Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, both of whom have 6½ sacks on the season.
Toney said it’s important that the Nittany Lions contain Fields.
“He's special, of course,” Toney said. “Most quarterbacks you're going to play in the Big Ten are going to be good or great, do something well, and you’ve just got to approach them the right way. He makes plays with his arm and his legs, so we have to do whatever we have to do to try to keep him in check.”
Despite all the talent on Ohio State’s offense, Franklin feels his players are up to the challenge — as long as they play mistake-free.
“We've had one or two mistakes per game that we got to get cleaned up,” he said. “Obviously, the better opponent you play, the more talented they are, it magnifies. There's less room for those types of errors. That's what this week needs to be about.”