STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Justin Fields looked eager to make up for lost time during Ohio State's season-opening blowout of Nebraska, operating the Buckeyes' offense with such efficiency pollsters vaulted his team to No. 3 in the polls after four quarters of nearly flawless football.
Throwing 20 completions and a pair of touchdown passes in 21 attempts will do that. So will running for a team-high 54 yards and another score. Leading the Buckeyes (1-0) to the end zone six times in 10 drives was helpful, too.
It was a heady start for a program that spent the first six weeks of the season watching from home and a quarterback that looks like a possible Heisman favorite now that Clemson star Trevor Lawrence is dealing with COVID-19.
Still, Fields has been around long enough to know how it works in 2020. Given the truncated schedule, there is no wiggle room. All the swagger Ohio State showed last week can vanish in an instant on Saturday at No. 18 Penn State (0-1).
The Nittany Lions were supposed to challenge the Buckeyes for Big Ten supremacy. That was before Penn State was stunned in overtime by Indiana last Saturday, meaning any shot it has at staying in the race depends on it knocking off Ohio State for the first time since 2016.
Fields understands the stakes. A win and the Buckeyes may be able to cruise all the way to the regular-season finale against rival Michigan. A loss? Fields would rather not go there.
“Being at Ohio State, we expect to win every day but to manage those expectations, I think we just have to take it one game at a time, one week at a time,” Fields said. “You can’t really look in the future.”
The Nittany Lions would prefer not to look into the past. Their stumble on the road against the Hoosiers was mostly the result of self-inflicted wounds. Ohio State offers a chance at a reprieve, though Penn State knows it needs to do more than give the Buckeyes a game. The last four meetings have been decided by a total of 16 points, but Ohio State won the last three.
“It’s not something that goes through my mind, like, ‘Oh, we can hang with this team,’” Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford said. “I’m not here to hang with Ohio State. I’m here to beat Ohio State.”
Clifford, who tossed two interceptions last week, has some more confidence after his first post-game film session with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
“You can control what you see,” Clifford said. “I’m bound to miss another pass this year. Our running backs are bound to miss a hole or a cut, a guy might not make a block. Those are physical mistakes that we can correct. It’s the mental mistakes where, could you have prepared for?”
The Buckeyes tightened up on defense last week after surrendering a quick opening scoring drive against Nebraska.
They forced five punts, two turnovers and allowed 10 points the rest of the way. They’re anticipating a tougher test this week with Penn State’s speed on the perimeter. Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, who was tasked with guarding former Penn State star KJ Hamler, has had eyes on newcomer Parker Washington all week.
“He reminds me of KJ a little bit,” Wade said.
The Nittany Lions will be short-handed inside Beaver Stadium.
By at least 110,000 people.
They aren’t the only ones disappointed at the prospect of the usually packed stadium — among the biggest in the country — being sparsely populated by cardboard cutouts paid for by fans.
“It’s definitely a challenge of a big stage in college football, a big stage in our life as a Buckeye,” Wade said. “I really love the White Out. I love the competition. I love their fans trying to rile us up. I love that because when we go there and when we beat them it’s just fun so I really, really wish they had it, but with the COVID-19 you can’t do anything about it.”
The Nittany Lions will likely use a pair of freshmen to spell starting running back Devyn Ford. It’s a position group with plenty of talent, but little experience with Journey Brown and Noah Cain out.
Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes don’t look like true freshmen physically. Holmes packs 210 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame while Lee, at 6-foot, looks every bit of 230 pounds.
This playing time will be their development phase, coach James Franklin said.
Cain was hurt last week and will miss the season with an undisclosed injury. Brown is out indefinitely with an unspecified medical condition.
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