10 keys to Ohio State-Penn State, from opposing coaches

By any conventional standards, the narrative surrounding Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett this week should center on his Heisman Trophy candidacy, breadth of his legacy at Ohio State or perhaps where he ranks among the great Big Ten quarterbacks. He has gone 32-5 over his four seasons at Ohio State, finished in the top five for the 2014 Heisman Trophy and rewritten both the Ohio State and conference record books.

But there’s a distinct tension that underscores Barrett’s complicated place on the cusp of greatness.

Barrett enters No. 6 Ohio State’s home game against No. 2 Penn State on Saturday night with 21 touchdown passes and just one interception this season. He’s on pace for the best statistical season of his career, including his highest completion percentage. But with Penn State bringing the country’s No. 1 scoring defense on Saturday (9.6 ppg), the imposing opposition rekindles reminders that elite opposition has been kryptonite to Ohio State’s offense the past few seasons.

Will we see the Barrett who filleted five unranked opponents in succession this fall, using tempo as an ally to flatten the competition? Or will Ohio State’s offense get swallowed in the spotlight like it did against Oklahoma earlier this season and Clemson and Michigan late last season?

Barrett’s career has been hallmarked by steady brilliance, but there’s just enough flaws to legitimize skepticism during big games. Barrett looked uncomfortable against Oklahoma, completing 19 of 35 passes for 183 yards. His offensive line left him under duress and his receivers struggled to get separation, leaving the Buckeye offense wheezing and overmatched when the lights shined brightest.

J.T. Barrett threw for 245 yards and on 28-of-43 passing in Ohio State’s loss to Penn State in 2016. (Getty)

Yahoo Sports spoke to eight coaches who’ve faced or studied both Ohio State and Penn State, attempting to get an X’s-and-O’s feel for one of the season’s best matchups. The conversation kept turning back to Barrett, who has a perfect platform if his progress transcends to elite opponents.

“I’m anxious to see J.T. Barrett in the most competitive games,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said. “Until they play Penn State on Saturday, we’re not going to know how much he improved. The last few games have looked like a scripted Thursday practice. But we need to see him do it against the best competition.”

Here’s 10 observations from those most familiar with Ohio State and Penn State that will ultimately determine the game on Saturday.

1) How much has Ohio State changed since the Oklahoma loss?

One opposing defensive coach who studied Ohio State pointed to increased tempo as the biggest evolution of the Ohio State offense since Oklahoma. (To be fair, Ohio State struggled so much on offense against Oklahoma that it didn’t get the first downs needed to utilize tempo). Since the Oklahoma game, the coach said Ohio State was in “Haul It and Call It” mode.

“They definitely ramped up the speed at which they operate,” he said. “That has created a wind for [Barrett] and them. The reads are more clear. The time spent trying to figure something out or not, is much less. They were moving very, very quickly.”

Multiple coaches pointed to the offense, which still has the bones of coach Urban Meyer’s traditional concepts, taking on a new feel with the tempo that new coordinator Kevin Wilson favored while at Indiana and as the successful coordinator at Oklahoma.

2) How does the combination of tempo and Ohio State’s collection of playmakers stress a defense?

An opposing coordinator notes Ohio State’s tempo took away his ability to mix defenses and forced vanilla looks. That highlighted Barrett’s strengths – quick decisions and ball distribution – and has allowed Ohio State to roll. “If you like to show something and play something else, that’s eliminated,” he said. “He gets a look at what you’re doing immediately, and then they’re [snapping the ball]. Your play-call pattern needs to be very simple and you have to get it in fast. It neutralizes your ability to pressure and play multiple coverages.”

3) Has Ohio State developed a downfield pass game?

One opposing defensive coach likened Ohio State throwing downfield to eating their vegetables. They do it because they have to and it’s good for them, not because they want to do it. The benefit of the downfield pass game is that it loosens up the defense, but opposing coaches say the Buckeyes still haven’t developed that facet to the point where it scares opponents. “I know they get beat up about vertical pass game,” said an opposing defensive coach. “That’s just not who they are. They create vertical seams with the horizontal attack.”

Added another coach: “Some coaches like to throw the ball because they like to, like Brian Kelly likes to throw downfield at Notre Dame. That’s not the case here. It’s something they try to make a concerted effort to do more of. They’ve been able to do it the past few games because of matchups.”

4) What’s been different about Barrett the past few weeks?

Jim Garfield was Barrett’s high school coach at Wichita Falls Rider and remains a close confidant. (He’ll be among a crew from Texas attending the game to support Barrett). Garfield knows Barrett’s game as well as anyone and has noticed this the past few weeks: “People have knocked him for overthinking and hesitating with the football,” Garfield said. “Those are the things that happen where the game has slowed down and he’s waiting for stuff to come open.”

Opposing coaches have noted that Barrett has lingered less on his first read, moving to his second and third read quicker the past handful of games. They attribute that to both tempo and an evolution in Ohio State’s pass game, with multiple coaches using the word “clean” to describe it. It has shown in his numbers as he’s completed a career best 66.7 percent of his passes, the best average since 2014, when he completed 64.7 percent of his passes. He’d regressed the past two seasons – 63.3 in 2015 and 61.5 in 2016 – in terms of completion percentage.

DiNardo points out that Barrett needs protection up front against Penn State, as his big-game struggles have been fueled by poor offensive line play in front of him.

5) What’s evolved about Saquon Barkley’s game in 2017?

Barkley is the Heisman Trophy favorite for a reason, as one coach described him as having a scat-back’s shiftiness in Leonard Fournette’s body. “When he gets the ball,” said an opposing coach, “you hold your breath until you get him on the ground.” Opposing coaches have been complimentary of the diversity of ways Barkley has got the ball. PSU’s run-pass-option based offense isn’t built around stuffing the ball in his gut 35 times a game. That’s meant more of an emphasis on Barkley in the pass game, as highlighted by his 42-yard touchdown catch on a double move against Michigan. (He also dropped a wheel route pass in the first half that could have broken open the game sooner). Barkley’s 32 catches and 448 yards lead the Nittany Lions, and he’s already surpassed his receiving totals from last year (28 catches for 402 yards). He’s also returned nine kicks for 273 yards and leads the nation in all-purpose yards with 211.1 per game. “It’s a deal where they know who their horse is,” said one assistant coach. “They’re going to get the football in his hands as much as they have to do it. Our defensive coaches were enamored by how many ways they could get him the football.”

6) Penn State’s defense is dominant, but is that a product of inferior competition?

One of the few knocks on Penn State’s defense is that it hasn’t played a top-tier offensive team yet. Michigan has been woeful, and Penn State flattened the Wolverines after yielding two scores early in the game. That adds an element of unknown to the Ohio State game, as the Buckeyes are clearly the best unit they’ve faced – and likely will face – this season. “They really haven’t been challenged,” said an opposing offensive coach. “Iowa was terrible and Northwestern stunk. They haven’t faced a good offense yet.”

What has worked? One opposing offensive coach found the best formula in spreading the field, running no-back and exploiting their aggressiveness with the screen game. He noted that one philosophical way to probe the defense was to “manipulate what they do,” by moving the pocket and looking backside and “trying to mess with their eyes.”

7) What makes Penn State’s defense so good?

There was uniformity in answering this question, perhaps the ultimate compliment to Brent Pry’s unit. Every coach quizzed on Penn State’s defense highlighted how well they played together. And the second compliment was about their toughness, which is apparently a lifestyle for the Nittany Lions. “You don’t realize it until you are live with them, they are just so tenacious,” said an opposing assistant coach. “It was a relentless onslaught of them being so aggressive, but I’m not saying they blitzed a lot. They just attacked you and attacked you and made you uncomfortable.”

8) Can Penn State’s shaky offensive line hold up?

Ohio State has one of the country’s deepest and most talented defensive lines, as one coach noted the dismay of OSU’s sub packages that took four five-star players off the field and replaced them with four more. The definitive Achilles heel of Penn State’s program remains the offensive line, which coaches complimented coordinator Joe Moorhead’s ability to mask. “It’s definitely the weakest part of their team,” an opposing assistant coach said of the line. “It was a severe liability and now it’s entering where it’s neutral for them. A year ago, it was dangerous it was so bad. I don’t think they’re light years better. Everyone is a little better. They’re not needed to be quite as good as you think they’d need to be [because of how the offense spread the ball].”

9) Who is a better quarterback, fifth-year senior Barrett or redshirt junior Trace McSorley?

DiNardo has gone on the air on the Big Ten Network and given the edge to McSorley. It’s reasonable to say that the first-team, all-league quarterback could well be decided on Saturday night. McSorley struggled in the game in State College last year, completing just eight of 23 passes for 154 yards. Ohio State generally dominated that game before a pair of fatal special teams mistakes doomed the Buckeyes. McSorley’s vastly improved statistically this season – 57.9 percent passing in 2016 to 66.8 percent this year – which can be attributed to an uptick in play or the inferior competition. Expect Penn State to take a lot of shots against Ohio State’s undersized secondary, which struggled when stressed against Indiana and Oklahoma. Don’t expect McSorley to play scared, as his fearlessness is perhaps his defining trait. “He’s a cocky little sucker,” said one assistant.

10) Who is going to win?

A majority of the coaches picked Ohio State, based on the location of the game and caliber of their players. “Personnel wise, they’re the best team in our league,” said a coach who has studied both extensively. He made a “Space Jam” reference to prove his point. “If the rest of the league is the Tune Squad, Ohio State is the Monstars.” The coach noted no big scheme adjustments in Ohio State defensively since Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield torched them for 386 yards passing. “Nothing has really changed, they are who they are. They just had some busts in the Oklahoma game, things were out of character.”

What happens Saturday? “You have to be able to run the ball vertically on Ohio State. When you watch Penn State play, that’s where I don’t see them having a great day. But, for No. 26 [Barkley], you don’t have to block them all perfect.”