If C.J. Stroud has been challenged by the past three Big Ten opponents he’s faced, it hasn’t been apparent to the viewing public.
Stroud and Ohio State’s top-ranked offense have been doing all the challenging over the month of October, in which it has averaged 559.3 total yards and 57.3 points – 41.3 in the first half alone – in matchups with Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana. But not only do those three teams have a combined 1-11 record in conference play so far this season, they also possess defenses that rank outside the nation’s top 50 in scoring, total yards and passing yards allowed.
|PENN STATE||324.4 YPG (No. 26)||14.7 PPG (No. 6)||178 YPG (T-No. 15)|
|INDIANA||364 YPG (No. 56)||30.7 PPG (No. 101)||229.7 YPG (No. 69)|
|MARYLAND||396.3 YPG (No. 83)||29.7 PPG (No. 96)||241.4 YPG (No. 88)|
|RUTGERS||368.9 YPG (No. 58)||22.6 PPG (T-No. 48)||219.9 YPG (No. 58)|
That won’t be the case when Penn State comes to town, as even a Nittany Lion team limping into Columbus on a two-game losing skid will enter Ohio Stadium with one of the country’s stoutest defenses by more than one benchmark.
Buckeye head coach Ryan Day said he’s informed his quarterback that things might not come quite as easily on Saturday as they have against other conference foes as of late.
“This game will be a little bit different; it’s gonna be electric, it’s gonna be at home, we’re playing against a really tough, physical defense that’s one of the better defenses in the country,” Day said Tuesday. “In a matchup game, you gotta learn to play a little field-position football and those types of things and being smart and all the things that have gotten (Stroud) to this point. But at the same time, he’s got to go do what he’s done the last couple weeks, and that’s go out there and play with confidence, prepare at a high level and lead his team.”
Penn State ranks No. 6 in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 14.7 points per game, and has the 15th-best pass defense in college football, with an average of only 178 yards given up through the air. The Nittany Lions also rank top five in yards allowed per play (4.31) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.2).
Even in losses to Iowa and Illinois the last two times out, defense was hardly the issue. The Hawkeyes and Fighting Illini scored a combined 43 points in those affairs with just three total touchdowns scored. Only one of those three came in the passing game, and Illinois quarterback Artur Sitkowski mustered just 38 passing yards against the Nittany Lions.
“I think the defense has played well, I mean they really only gave up 10 points again last week,” Day said. “Brent Pry is an excellent defensive coordinator, has been for a long time. They have a very good scheme, very good players. I think when you look at their front, they’re very active. The linebackers are very good and their back end is veteran now; they’ve played a lot of football. They’re one of the best defenses in the country, in my opinion, and there’s a lot that goes into that. I think it’s scheme, I think it’s coaching, but they have really good personnel as well.”
One could correctly point out that aside from Auburn, which ranks No. 31 in the country in total offense, all of Penn State’s FBS opponents rank between 90th and 121st in that same statistic. But that won’t make Day any less wary of the talent James Franklin has at his disposal, particularly in the secondary.
Penn State returns two 2020 All-Big Ten honorees in cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and safety Jaquan Brisker, who already have three interceptions between them this season. Fifth-year senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields leads the team with five pass breakups, and senior safety Ji’Ayir Brown has a team-high three picks.
“Castro-Fields has played for a long time, very good player, veteran, understands that style of defense. I feel like over the years they’ve had a lot of corners who have played in that style of defense for a long time, he’s one of them,” Day said. “Porter played against us last year, very long, very athletic, does a good job in their defense. I think Brisker’s one of the better safeties that we’ve played against this year. He’s physical in the box, he’s athletic, he runs around. I just think across the board, they’re athletic back there. It allows them to run some different schemes.”
Despite the overwhelming success Stroud has enjoyed since returning from a one-game absence due to a shoulder injury, the redshirt freshman has not had to respond to much adversity in the past few games. Stellar play on both sides of the ball and fast starts on offense have allowed Stroud to play freely and rack up 14 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last three contests.
Stroud admitted after this past weekend’s win over Indiana that he was “down in the dumps” during Ohio State’s rocky start to the season, but his change in spirits has been clear ever since.
“I think you just see that the game’s slowing down for him,” Buckeye tight end Jeremy Ruckert said Tuesday. “It’s really tough to come into a big-time environment and a big-time school like Ohio State and just perform right away, I had some trouble with that. He’s done a great job, he’s been showing up every day with a positive mindset and I try to tell him every game, ‘Don’t do anything special, just be yourself because that’s what got you here. And trust your coaches, trust your players,’ because they’re gonna put him in the best position to win.”
Ruckert said his quarterback has stopped forcing things, and is now simply being himself on the field. That shift in mentality has not come on its own accord though, as players like Ruckert have helped encourage him through the hard times at every step.
“I try my best on the field to just keep everybody’s heads on straight, especially C.J. I can only imagine what it’s like,” Ruckert said. “Playing tight end, you gotta do a lot of jobs, but I feel like quarterback, you gotta know everybody’s job and be able to do that all in a split second. I can only imagine what he’s thinking, so any time I can, I just try and go up to him and just tell him, ‘Be cool, relax, you’re here for a reason, you’re special, so just be yourself.’ I try to just do these little things to just get these guys to realize no moment’s too big. We’ve been through it.”
The moment will certainly be a big one on Saturday, and even if Stroud has already played in night games, Big Ten clashes and at least one ranked matchup this season, his mettle may still be tested more against Penn State than it has before in 2021.