Penn State skill position players present formidable test for Ohio State football defense

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Early in the third quarter of Penn State’s win over Minnesota on Saturday, receiver Parker Washington was running a deep route toward the end zone.

As he approached the goal line, a floating pass arrived from quarterback Sean Clifford. In order to outmaneuver safety Terell Smith, who draped him in coverage, Washington outjumped him to pluck the ball out of the air for a 35-yard touchdown.

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“Just perfectly timed on the high point,” Greg McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback and color commentator, said on ABC’s telecast.

The acrobatic catch made by Washington offers a glimpse of the threat posed by the Nittany Lions when Ohio State visits Happy Valley for a top-15 matchup on Saturday afternoon.

Through nearly two months of the season, the unbeaten Buckeyes have faced other talented receivers such as Michigan State’s Jayden Reed or tough running backs such as Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen.

Penn State receiver Parker Washington has a team-high 30 catches for 388 yards and a touchdown.

But Penn State contains the most complete blend of skill position talent between Mitchell Tinsley and Washington, as well as Nicholas Singleton, a running back who is among the top rushers in the Big Ten as a freshman.

“The combination of quarterback and wide receiver will be the biggest challenge so far,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said. “They’re a good collection of talent, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and the quarterback.”

The Nittany Lions’ use of their playmakers is directed by Clifford, a battle-tested quarterback who is also a polarizing figure within his own fanbase. Some fans at Beaver Stadium booed Clifford during pregame introductions last week as coach James Franklin stuck with the super senior as the starter instead of turning to heralded freshman Drew Allar following their first loss at Michigan.

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If not as prolific as other passers in the conference with arm strength, Clifford has still been capable signal caller with a 13-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio through seven games.

Ohio State sees his experience behind center as an advantage for the Nittany Lions. He has made 40 career starts over a stretch that began in 2019.

“He’s played a lot of football,” Day said, “and a lot of guys who play that much football, they have so many snaps under their belt that they’ve seen so many different things that that makes them dangerous in and of itself.”

Part of the success of the Buckeyes’ defense this season is tied to coordinator Jim Knowles’ ability to disguise fronts before the ball is snapped, causing some confusion for the offenses identifying looks.

Penn State wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley has 28 receptions for 340 yards and four touchdowns.

Clifford’s experience could make him better equipped than most quarterbacks to handle that variety.

“He’s veteran,” Knowles said. “He’s very smart. He’s good at reading what you’re doing, delivering the ball. He’s tough. Hangs in there. He can scramble. He’s just a really good quarterback. He’s an operator.”

His poise was evident on the touchdown pass to Washington on Saturday as he absorbed a hit from a defensive tackle while lofting a pass downfield.

Washington had a 100-yard receiving game against the Buckeyes last October as a complement to Jahan Dotson, the star receiver who is now in the NFL, before assuming a larger role with Tinsley.

Washington has a team-high 30 catches for 388 yards and a touchdown while Tinsley has 28 receptions for 340 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Brenton Strange, who has nabbed 17 passes for 245 yards and four touchdowns, is also a staple of the passing game.

Knowles remarked this week that the Nittany Lions’ receivers are all skillful.

“They can go up and win a lot of 50/50 balls,” he said. “They’re good route runners. I just think that whole operation will be a challenge for us.”

Ohio State defense has challenge against Penn State

The back of the Buckeyes’ defense has been vulnerable, at least in part because of injuries.

Penn State freshman running back Nick Singleton has rushed for 561 yards and seven touchdowns and averages 6.8 yards per carry.

Starting cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown have been sidelined for various stretches. Brown has missed three out of the past four games, including last week against Iowa. Day did not specify the issue, but said that Brown is not to be out for the long-term and would be back soon.

The most encouraging development for Ohio State, and one that could help them Saturday, is the progress shown by Jordan Hancock. He missed the first half of regular season because of an apparent lower body injury but made his debut in the win over the Hawkeyes and played 15 snaps.

“He has great length and skills,” Knowles said, “but he also sees the formation well. He sees the adjustment. He can predict pre-snap what’s going to happen. He has a high football intelligence.”

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman

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