Smart move: Penn State defense preparing for season's biggest test

James Franklin previews Ohio State, addresses supporting Julius (4:23)

Penn State will host No. 2 Ohio State in primetime Saturday in a White Out game. James Franklin joins ESPN's Anish Shroff to discuss preparation for the Buckeyes and how the program has helped kicker Joey Julius through an eating disorder. (4:23)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State cornerback Grant Haley didn’t hesitate when asked whether Ohio State would provide his defense their biggest challenge of the season.

The No. 2 Buckeyes boast the fourth-best rushing offense in the nation. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is a candidate for the Heisman. And Curtis Samuel has done something no other FBS player has achieved, in amassing over 400 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards. Of course, they won’t play another team like this.

“They are the best offense,” Haley said, “because they have a great quarterback who can run and throw – and they have athletic guys on the edge, too, and a great offensive line.”

Still, Haley and the defense are a bit more confident this week after most players relaxed in their apartments during Saturday’s bye, watching the Buckeyes hold on for a 30-23 overtime win against No. 10 Wisconsin. The Buckeyes looked beatable. And that meant a lot of this young defense, which still doesn’t have a starting linebacker at 100 percent.

“I watched how close of a game it was, and we definitely have a chance to compete with these guys,” safety Marcus Allen said. “Wisconsin opened up a big picture of what we can do against them. It opened a lot of things for us to look into.”

Among those things? Haley said, for this defense to stand a chance, it needs to force Ohio State to become one-dimensional. Penn State needs to stay smart on the edge, limit Barrett’s explosiveness and shut down the running game.

In other words, if the 20-point underdog Nittany Lions want an upset, they’ll have to make Barrett beat them through the air. They’ve quietly put together a solid secondary, one that has allowed the sixth-fewest yards per completion (9.87) in the nation.

But it’s not going to be easy; Barrett is a Heisman contender for a reason. He posted an adjusted QBR of 74.0 in four of six games so far, and no Big Ten quarterback has been more accurate.

“He’s a guy that can beat you in so many different ways,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He can beat you with his experience, and he can beat you with his accuracy and decision-making, and he can beat you with his legs.”

Penn State won’t face another top-40 offense the rest of the regular season. The best offense it has played to this point was Michigan, when it surrendered seven touchdowns and had 15 missed tackles in a blowout 49-10 loss.

But players such as defensive end Evan Schwan swear that’s all behind the Lions. Penn State had only four stops in the backfield against Michigan. Over the last two games, against Maryland and Minnesota, that number has risen to 19 – despite PSU blitzing less.

“We’ve improved a lot in the facets of the game,” Schwan said. “As a defense, we’re getting better and better week to week, practice to practice.”

Penn State hasn’t beaten a top-two team since 1990, as it has dropped the last eight such contests. Now, this defense is hoping, it can stay smart and reverse the trend by slowing down one of the nation's most explosive offenses.

“If we can make them a one-dimensional team,” Haley said, “it makes our chances of winning more successful.”