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Lions must maintain a ball-control offense

The question reminds me of the late 1970s, my very early days at the Mirror.

At that time, there were three outstanding area small-school scholastic football teams that stood out — Southern Huntingdon, Bellwood-Antis and Juniata Valley.

Each was coached by an old-school, run-first, tough guy — Ted Nypaver at Southern, Jim Gardner at Bellwood and Bill Clouse at Juniata Valley.

Nypaver recently was inducted into the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, while Gardner and Clouse were nearly as distinguished and equally respected.

The season boiled down to a showdown between Bellwood and Southern, and in our preparation, the Mirror advanced the game by talking with Clouse, one of the common and comparable opponents.

Asked how you beat Southern, Clouse said, kiddingly: “Blow up their bus.”

I kind of feel the same way about Penn State’s chances Saturday in Columbus.

Though the Nittany Lions are enjoying a very good year — particularly when matching their 9-1 record against preseason expectations — they haven’t played their best lately and are a three-touchdown underdog.

Their defense has been vulnerable to the pass, and two of their most reliable offensive weapons, KJ Hamler and Noah Cain, are questionable with injuries.

Despite generally being in the 15-point underdog range against the Buckeyes throughout the last decade, under James Franklin, the Lions are 1-4 in the series but have played competitively.

For that to happen Saturday, the Lions cannot get into an offensive shootout against the nation’s highest-scoring team (58.5 points per game). And they must limit Ohio State’s offensive possessions.

That means PSU’s best chance — maybe its only chance — is to maintain a ball-control offense.

Can that be done? Well, that’s why they play the games, but there are signs.

Penn State ended the Indiana game with an 18-play, nine-minute drive, content to bite off small chunks with patience.

The Lions adjusted their offensive style with additional use of a double-tight end set (Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers) while continuing to run Sean Clifford when the opportunity presented.

The Nits also dusted off backup quarterback Will Levis, who converted a key fourth down by sticking his nose into the line late against the Hoosiers.

Clifford surely will be looking for the seams, and maybe Levis, who looks like a tight end, will be part of the strategy against the Buckeyes, too.

If you’ll recall, before the Bucks completed their fateful comeback last year, turning a 26-14 deficit with eight minutes left into a 27-26 victory, Ohio State was quite vulnerable to the run-pass option.

The great Trace McSorley rushed — rushed — for 175 yards on 25 carries in quite possibly the most willful quarterback effort that I have ever seen.

This year’s offensive line is the best in Franklin’s six years at Penn State. Clifford has proven adept at running to open up the pass game. Franklin hinted that Noah Cain may return from injury this week, and either way, Journey Brown has proven capable.

Penn State carried 45 times last week against Indiana and attempted just 23 passes, its second lowest total this season.

That’s the kind of plan they’ll need to have any chance to stay in the game against the Buckeyes.

By the way, in said 1979 game, Southern Huntingdon beat Bellwood-Antis, 30-7.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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