Asked about the first time he experienced a football game that resembled a heavyweight fight, Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney recalled the 2015 PIAA District 12 Class 3A championship game between his Imhotep Charter Panthers and Archbishop Wood.
“It was my senior year,” Toney said of the game, won, 20-14, by Imhotep. “Game came down to the wire. Anthony Russo — one of my Philly guys; I know he’s doing well at Temple — threw a game-sealing pick. I was in his face and he threw it to my running back, Mike Waters.”
Toney mentioned some monumental games since he’s been with the Nittany Lions, including in 2017 at Iowa when Penn State won on the game’s final play. But perhaps none will be bigger than Saturday’s game against undefeated and second-ranked Ohio State on the road in Columbus with a chance at the Big Ten East championship on the line.
Head coach James Franklin said his ninth-ranked Lions have to come out and match the Buckeyes play for play, or punch for punch.
“We’re going to have to match their confidence, and we’re going to have to match their playmaking,” he said. “Matching their playmaking isn’t just taking shots down the field and things like that. You’re carrying the ball as a running back or as a receiver and they come up to make a tackle. They’ve made that tackle in 10 previous games, and you break that tackle and go for 40. That sends a message.
“For us to sit here and expect that Ohio State isn’t going to make plays on Saturday, they’re going to. That’s going to be my message to the team: They’re going to make plays — we’ve got to match them. It needs to be one of those types of games, like a heavyweight fight. That guy delivers a blow — you counter. That’s what it’s going to need to be.”
Ohio State hasn’t been punched much during its brilliant 2019 season to date. Its average scoring margin is 41.7 points. The Buckeyes have trailed only once — 5-0 to Miami of Ohio — and answered with 76 straight points. Their top running back, J.K. Dobbins, has carried just 42 times in the second half, and has four games of zero carries in the final two quarters.
As for explosive plays, Ohio State has 29 runs and 27 pass completions of 20 or more yards. The Nittany Lions’ numbers are 14 runs and 37 completions of 20 or longer. The Buckeyes have scored 111 points off 22 takeaways, compared to Penn State’s 79 points off 17 takeaways.
With most of the 102,000-plus in attendance at Ohio Stadium wearing scarlet and gray, the Lions won’t be reluctant to take shots.
“I think one of the worst things that people do is they play a really talented team and you play conservatively,” Franklin said. “You can’t do that. We’re going to have to match their confidence, and we’re going to have to match their playmaking.”
Toney feels the same way.
“Football truly is a momentum sport,” he said. “If you don’t react to the momentum the right way, you can get drowned out. You’ve got to keep fighting. If the momentum isn’t swinging your way, you’ve got to counter back, throw a hook, jab, something, make sure you never stop fighting.”
That means the Nittany Lions can’t make the mistakes they’ve made the last two weeks. Their secondary allowed 710 total passing yards in the loss to Minnesota and the win over Indiana. Quarterback Sean Clifford threw three interceptions against the Golden Gophers and suffered his first lost fumble of the season against the Hoosiers.
Franklin wants to make sure the Lions’ fundamentals and discipline are sharp for the Buckeyes, the fifth ranked team they’ve played in their last six games.
He said both areas have been “overall good, but we’ve had one or two mistakes per game that we’ve got to get cleaned up. Obviously the better opponent you play, the more talented they are, it magnifies. There’s less room for those types of errors. That’s what this week needs to be about.”