The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

OSU vs Penn State preview

Posted by disappointmentzone on 22 September 2006

Penn State is trending down after starting the season ranked 19th in the nation. A lifeless performance against Notre Dame in week two dropped Penn State to 25th in the AP poll and a win over Youngstown State bumped them back up a stop, to 24th. But nothing about Penn State exactly screams “elite team” and so here is a bold prediction: after this week Penn State will be unranked. And here’s another: at no point during the rest of the season will Penn State be ranked in the top 25. Penn State will lose at least three more games, the first coming tomorrow afternoon (3:30pm, ABC) against OSU.
As has been demonstrated by Texas and NIU, the Buckeyes’ rushing defense is suspect (the UC game doesn’t count; UC can’t run the ball to save its life) and Penn State is entering with the third-best rushing offense in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions average a shade over 200 yards per game on the ground, with Tony Hunt (5.8 yards per carry) leading the charge. Somewhat curiously, the OSU defense doesn’t give up points despite allowing so many yards. In fact, through the first three games of the season OSU’s defense has faired better than last year’s defense. True, OSU played the eventual national champions during that stretch, but this season’s MAC team (NIU) was better than last season’s (Miami). SDS and UC are equally crummy teams.

If there were an over/under on points surrendered by OSU through the first three games of the season the line would have been set far north of 26, and if you would have told me back in July that the defense would have allowed no more than 12 points in any game so far I would have laughed. I have no clue what sort of defensive philosophy is being preached by the defensive coaches, but my guess it’s something along the line of: we play defense only when it matters (the red zone). So far, so good. Can’t argue with results, I suppose. Although smarter people than I will eventually have to explain to me what’s going on if this sort of success continues.

***
Consider the point spread: OSU -16.5.

OSU has, in Gonzalez and Ginn, two of the most-prolific wide outs in the Big Ten. Troy Smith leads the conference is passer rating. The running game hasn’t taken off as expected (paging Chris Wells…), but Antonio Pittman has quietly rushed for the fourth-most yards in the conference. Any team capable of dropping 28 points in 15:05, which is what happened in the opener, is capable of scoring a lot of points, and what’s more: everyone know this about OSU. No smart person who thinks OSU is one of the top teams in the country thinks that OSU is riding its defense. OSU was preseason #1 only because of the offense. There are a number of other telling statistics I could toss out, but they would only further confirm what we already know for certain: OSU has a great offense. And Penn State has a horribly inadequate defense for handling the OSU offense. Penn State ranks 77th against the pass and the default mode for this OSU team is to pass the ball.

With a defense that gives up just over eight points per game, what are we to make of the spread? Do betters think that OSU will only score about 24 points tomorrow, or do they think that the defense will finally allow an equitable amount of points to go along with the amount of yards it gives up?

OSU’s pass defense ranks only 55th in the country and Penn State has an outstanding WR in Scott Norwood. The other two wide outs–Williams and Butler, both sophomores–are talented as well. Penn State averages about 203 passing yards per game, so the team has a balanced offense. Coupled with a strong running game, perhaps people think that OSU’s defense has met its match in Penn State. Penn State has talented players, too be sure. Then again, so did Texas (a team that averages about 89 points per game) and NIU (Wolfe is very good). In those two teams OSU has faced a more talented WR (Sweed) and a more talented RB (Wolfe) than any player PSU will throw at them, and in neither game did OSU give up more than 12 points. The 16.5-point spread is telling, I think, in that I read it as an indication that a lot of people think OSU’s defense is playing above its head with respect to points allowed.

Why do I read the spread this way? Because the offense is certainly capable of dropping a ND-like 30+ points tomorrow afternoon. Last week’s spread, 29.5 points, seemed to me to be as much about OSU’s offense as it was anything else. Shutouts in college football games are very rare. Even the best teams with the strongest defenses give up points; just look at last year’s team. When the spread was set at nearly 30 points it was because a lot of people thought OSU would score well over 30 points, not because OSU would score about 30 points and shut out UC.

I really don’t know what to make of the 16.5 point spread. By virtue of how point spreads are set the spread is generally a very compelling number. But I’m having trouble wrapping my head around 16.5 points–it seems utterly ambivalent. None of the likely scenarios in which OSU wins by 16-17 points seems that likely to me.

17-0? Nope. OSU will score.
24-7? Nope. OSU will score.
27-10? Nope. OSU will score.
34-17? Perhaps.
37-20? Perhaps.
42-25? Nope. OSU will play defense.
47-30? Nope. OSU will play defense.

Notre Dame does not have a strong defense and it held PSU to 17 points, which includes 14 fourth-quarter points against the second and third string ND defense. The upper limit for PSU tomorrow, I think, is around 20 points. There are three scenarios broad scenarios for tomorrow’s game, and none of them result in a 20-37 score.

#1. OSU blows out PSU early, and then stops playing offense. By stop playing offense I mean stop scoring points. Then the second and third stringers play the third and fourth quarters and PSU scores a few cheap points. The problem is that OSU seems incapable of not scoring. When the second-string running back would the be starting running back on 90% of all teams, not scoring points is tough–especially at home and after what happened last season. The only way OSU doesn’t score at least seven points in the fourth quarter is if Tressel puts on pads and starts playing RB. So the “blow-out and PSU gets a cheap points” option doesn’t seem likely because if OSU blows out PSU then OSU will score more than 35-37 points.

#2. The game is close entering the fourth quarter, at which point OSU wakes up and beats PSU by 16-17. But I doubt the game will be close entering the fourth quarter because for the game to be close it means the score will be low (17-22 points for either team). PSU’s defense is not good enough to keep the game a low scoring affair (like last season) and OSU’s defense is plenty good enough to hold PSU. If OSU is pedestrian on offense–scoring no more than 14 points per quarter–then the first team defense will play long enough to hold PSU well under 20, like what we saw last week against UC. So if OSU scores 37 points again this week, my guess is that PSU will score about 10-17 points.

#3. The final scenario is for PSU to come out on fire, score 10-14 quick points, and then for OSU to spend the next three quarters beating them down, kind of like what happened last week but only if UC scored more than seven points in the first quarter. But, again, the chances of this happening are exceedingly slim. The game is at home, PSU shredded OSU’s dreams last season; OSU is good enough on offense (meaning OSU can hold onto the ball for long periods of time) that for PSU to score 14 points would require a turnover or really good defense or really efficient offense. PSU is probably incapable of the last two and OSU doesn’t turn the ball over.

I said I’d never offer gambling advice, but 16.5 genuinely strikes me as odd. In that spirit, I’ll break my two-week-old pact and say take OSU, 41-17.

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