How Can Penn State Catch Ohio State?

Photo by Kami Brand

In the Big Ten it’s the Ohio State Buckeyes and then everyone else. That is the undeniable truth.

In the past four seasons, Ohio State is 49-6 and boasts a 33-3 conference record (16′ loss at Penn State, 17′ loss at Iowa, and 18′ loss at Purdue). To put it plainly, it has been utter dominance.

So how do the Nittany Lions rise to the same level? Well, it’s important to note that Penn State has played the Buckeyes as well as anyone in the past four years: both the 2017 and 2018 games were heartbreakers with a single point separating the Lions from the Buckeyes. Last year’s game wasn’t as close, but it was also probably Ohio State’s most talented team since 2014 and it was in Ohio Stadium.

As close as the Nittany Lions were to knocking off the Buckeyes, there are also no moral victories in College Football. The pair of losses in 2017 and 2018 were a figurative Ohio State stiff arm–keeping Penn State out of arm’s reach.

Let’s take a closer look:


Recruiting is the fuel to any college football program. Obviously every program has to be able to develop their players to be successful, something Michigan has struggled with. But the top-tier teams are able to consistently develop their four and five star recruits. So it doesn’t matter how well the Iowas and Wisconsins improve their three star players, they will never consistently keep up with the schools that are recruiting and developing their blue-chip recruits.

That is simply why Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten.

 

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Look at the above data. Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten when it comes to recruiting. In 2019, the Nittany Lions did edge out the Buckeyes. The class has players who will look to make a major impact in 2020: Noah Cain, Brandon Smith, Adisa Isaac, John Dunmore, and Devyn Ford. But for the most part Ohio State has had their way when it comes to recruiting. Typical recruiting battles between the Buckeyes and Wolverines in Michigan and Ohio have been won by Ohio State. Furthermore the Buckeyes have stolen big time players from Pennsylvania like five star receiver Julian Fleming. To top it off, the Buckeyes have been recruiting on a national level rivaling the likes of Georgia and Alabama.

It’s no surprise that the strong 2018 and 2019 Penn State recruiting classes came after the Nittany Lions returned to greatness in 2016. However, the 2016 Big Ten Championship is long gone; high school recruits were only 11-14 years old when James Franklin raised that trophy. The Nittany Lions need to continue to defend why their product is better than Ohio State’s.

Because right now it isn’t.

On top of the recruiting imbalance, Ohio State continues to attract top-level transfers to their program. The most gut-wrenching one? Justin Fields transferring from Georgia to Columbus, who was at one time committed to Penn State. Just yesterday, Oklahoma running back and graduate transfer, Trey Sermon, announced he too will be transferring to Ohio State.

Penn State’s biggest addition via the transfer portal? A specialist. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions have lost big time players such as Juwan Johnson, Justin Shorter, and Ricky Slade. Perhaps Penn State fans won’t miss any of them, but the program still needs to find a way to entice a couple playmakers where their depth is shallow.


It’s hard to compete against Ohio State with the number of blue chip players on their roster. But it’s important to note that Penn State doesn’t need to beat the Buckeyes every time they play them to narrow the gap. But when they have the opportunities to win, they must capitalize. The single-point losses in 2017 and 2018 halted the momentum of the entire program not because they lost to Ohio State, but how and when they lost. Losing by one-point, twice, leaves a stinging resonance within the entire program. Even a split in those games would have helped close the distance between the programs. Instead, losing both those games, then losing the following week to Michigan State lagged the program’s growth and let Ohio State separate.

The loss in 2019 didn’t change the opinions of many, Penn State wasn’t supposed to beat one of the best teams in the country on their home-field. But now let’s fast forward to the 2020 season.

Penn State is returning a ton of experience, a stout defense, and a couple game-changers on both sides of the football. Let’s focus in on the last point because I believe that is what makes the difference between the elite and the great programs. Having team speed and disruptive linemen help you dominate the lesser opponents, but the game changing playmakers are the ones that swing the game in your favor against evenly matched teams. Think Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin, KJ Hamler.

Penn State will still be looking for a few more game changers in their receiving corps, but they have promising prospects eager to prove themselves. All things considered, given how much Ohio State has to replace, this appears to be a season where Penn State can move one step closer to Ohio State.

And beating Ohio State every couple years along with capitalizing on other primetime matchups is the only way to narrow the gap and truly compete with the Buckeyes.

And if they don’t beat them in 2020 then they will just move further away.

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