Lions need to protect Hackenberg

Five things to look for as Penn State tries to end No. 4 Ohio State’s national championship hopes and beat a top five team for the first time since 1999.

No. 1: Protect Hack

Penn State’s offense should be effective moving the ball against Ohio State’s defense, which is not all that good and is especially suspect against the pass. But that’s IF and only IF the offensive line plays well and gives quarterback Christian Hackenberg time.

It is a big if.

The Nittany Lions can expect the Buckeyes to bring a ton of pressure trying to hit the freshman quarterback early and often. Hackenberg is playing in his first hostile road game, so nerves could be a factor, and the Buckeyes will look to make things even more difficult for him by blitzing a lot and disguising their rush schemes.

The only way Penn State can win this game is if it scores a lot of points – upwards of 30 or more – so Hackenberg must stay upright and pass efficiently to keep things close.

No. 2: Pick your poison

Even if PSU’s offense plays well, most people figure the game will be decided by whether the Nittany Lions’ defense can slow down quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde and the Buckeye offense.

It is going to be an incredibly difficult challenge for a defense that, quite frankly, could be exposed in several areas tonight.

Miller runs well and is throwing much better this season, plus he has some very good receiving targets in Devin Smith and Philly Brown.

The key for the Lions will be to make Miller one-dimensional, forcing him to beat them with either his arm or legs, but not both. Their best chance is to sell out trying to stop him – and Hyde – on the ground and force the Buckeyes to throw the ball.

That might work. But then again, Penn State’s pass coverage has a lot of holes both underneath and over the top, so Ohio State could burn the Lions downfield if they decide to load up the box.

Cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams need to play well, but safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser also have to come up big helping out on deep throws.

There’s no easy answer here, which is why Ohio State’s offense is so explosive and why the Buckeyes ultimately should win the game.

No. 3: Turnovers

Every single possession will be vital for both PSU’s offense and defense, and in a game like this, the turnover margin often decides if the underdog stays close or gets blown out.

The Lions probably need to be at least plus-two in turnovers to have a chance in the fourth quarter. Hackenberg will be pressured and has to make good decisions to avoid interceptions, and running back Zack Zwinak absolutely cannot put the ball on the ground.

No. 4: Use the TEs

Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman need to combine for 10 or more catches, serving as quick options for Hackenberg and helping move the chains to keep Ohio State’s offense off the field.

Iowa had success with its three tight end sets against the Buckeyes last week, so we could see some of those tonight.

If it’s not the tight ends, Hackenberg can throw quick outs to receivers or screens to the running backs to serve the same purpose.

No. 5: Player to watch

Miller is the key to Ohio State’s offense, but the choice here is Hyde, a powerful runner who comes in averaging 111 yards per game. If Hyde has his way against PSU’s defense, coupled with what Miller can do, then the Lions won’t have much chance stopping the Buckeyes.

Prediction: Ohio State 34, Penn State 20

Follow Giger’s live updates from the press box on Twitter @CoryGiger.