College football keys: Will Ohio State's run of sluggish starts continue against Penn State?

The Penn State Nittany Lions head to the Shoe to face the Ohio State Buckeyes in a big-time matchup between two of the three undefeated teams in the Big Ten. With a lot on the line in the race to reach the conference title game, it’s easy to turn to the Buckeyes as they have eight straight wins over Penn State, with the last four by double digits.

However, this year is a different test. Let's look at the total and how these two teams usually fare against each other.

Game total history

The last five games in Columbus between Penn State and Ohio State have seen an average score of 61. Right off the bat, it’s interesting that the game total opened at 47 and has since been bet down to 45.5, after it opened at 61.5 and 59.5 the last two years. I agree with the lower line and with the line move but with an already low total, grabbing the best number becomes that much more imperative. Instead, looking to the first quarter under 10 could be the best option.

Ohio State's slow starts

Prior to Purdue, the OSU offense ranked 96th in first-quarter points scored, producing just two touchdowns. The Buckeyes were then shut out in the opening quarter in back-to-back games. We have enough of a sample size to believe that the sluggish starts could be an ongoing problem, at least against higher-caliber opponents.

In the first quarter against Indiana, Notre Dame and Maryland, quarterback Kyle McCord threw for a combined 71 yards, completing nine of his 18 pass attempts. In those three games, the Buckeyes offense put together two red-zone trips on eight drives.

Penn State coach James Franklin leads his team on the field against Northwestern on Sept. 30. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)
Penn State coach James Franklin leads his team on the field against Northwestern on Sept. 30. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

The slow starts for the Buckeyes offense is atypical for Ryan Day's uptempo offense. However, let’s not forget that McCord is still a first-year starter. Plus, it’s not all McCord. The rushing offense has not been complementary, ranking in the bottom 15 in rushing attempts and rush attempts to gain 10 or more yards. Not to mention the Buckeyes are 92nd in penalties per game. The lack of a run game, an inexperienced quarterback and it being an undisciplined unit are all contributing factors to Ohio State’s offense starting slow out of the gate.

Penn State defense

James Franklin’s defense is graded the fifth-best, according to PFF. The "Who have they played?” argument could be made. However, that holds far less weight when the Nittany Lions are totally shutting opponents down. In its two shutout wins over Iowa and UMass, Penn State gave up a combined 185 total yards, forced five turnovers and allowed only 13 total first downs. The Nittany Lions beat up on lesser competition like they’re supposed to.

If there was a chance for Penn State to stay competitive against Ohio State, it would be at the start of the game. Attack McCord early and often. Penn State leads the nation in total quarterback pressures and is second in total sacks, led by defensive end Adisa Isaac. This is a complete defensive front that is quick off the line and showcases speed in pursuit. It’s why Penn State has allowed just three points in the first quarter of games all season.

If the Nittany Lions defense is lively early, we can expect another sluggish start for the Buckeyes.

Why the under instead of backing Penn State early?

Drew Allar is a serviceable quarterback, completing 65% of his passes. However, he ranks 70th for yards per pass (6.9 YPA) with a 6.6 average depth of target (98th). Those short, chunk plays won’t be enough to surprise the Buckeyes defense.

Ohio State may not be productive on offense at the start of games, but the defense is holding its own in the first quarter, allowing just 17 total points, seven of which was to Maryland. Looking a bit closer, the Terps benefitted from a short field position at the Ohio State 30, after a turnover on downs from the Buckeyes. Excluding that, Ohio State has allowed just 10 points on the year, shutting out opponents in three of the games.

In its two road games, against lesser opponents, Penn State produced just three total field goals in the first quarter. Under early is the play.

As far as the full-game outcome, that’s tougher to predict. Both offenses wake up and produce as the game progresses. They both rank top 30 in points scored in the second quarter, top 15 in the third. It’s a matter of which defense can hold its ground for all 60 minutes. If a game-winning play needs to be executed, then I’d trust McCord, who delivered in the Buckeyes' win over Notre Dame. Allar has not been tested in that manner. If it comes down to a two-minute drill, I trust Ryan Day's offense to produce.