If it’s a big game, Penn State coach James Franklin usually comes up short, and knocking off No. 2 Ohio State will be a tall order for the Nittany Lions on Saturday.
What’s the definition of a big game? In this case, it’s one against a Top 10 team. Penn State is 2-14 in such games under Franklin, who does get some credit for being competitive in most cases. In the 10 most recent occasions Franklin faced a Top 10 opponent, the Lions are 0-10 straight up, but with five of the losses by four or fewer points.
It’s probably too much to ask of Penn State to beat the Buckeyes, so that’s not the point for betting purposes. What matters most is the underdog covering the 15.5-point line, and it’s reasonable to expect the Lions to accomplish that on their home field in Happy Valley.
There is a fear factor involved when Ohio State is on the other side. The Buckeyes rank second in the nation in scoring offense (49.6 points per game) and have won all seven games by double digits. Junior quarterback C.J. Stroud is putting up Heisman Trophy-worthy numbers, passing for 2,023 yards and 28 touchdowns while minimizing negative plays (four interceptions, five sacks).
However, since struggling to put away Notre Dame 21-10 in the season opener, the Buckeyes have faced six relatively weak opponents (Arkansas State, Toledo, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Michigan State and Iowa) and played only one road game. It’s finally time for Ohio State to step up against a ranked opponent in a hostile road atmosphere, so we don’t truly know how powerful coach Ryan Day’s team is until we see if that happens this weekend.
The Buckeyes were held to 66 rushing yards on 30 carries against the Hawkeyes last week, and Penn State’s defense has been better at containing the pass than stopping the run. The Lions were ripped for 418 rushing yards in a 41-17 loss at then-No. 5 Michigan on Oct. 15, a lopsided result that contributes to inflating this point spread.
If this game gets loose and Penn State is forced to trade scores to stay within striking range, that’s a tricky proposition, but Lions quarterback Sean Clifford is a dual threat and running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen have the ability to move the ball on the ground and keep the clock moving.
Penn State has covered five of the past six against Ohio State, with 13 points being the Buckeyes’ largest margin of victory. It’s an early-morning kickoff, and the dog would be a better bet in a night game, but I’ll take the points anyway.
Pick: Penn State + 15.5
Nine more plays for Saturday (HOME team in CAPS):
NEBRASKA (+ 7.5) over Illinois: It’s likely that Illini star Chase Brown, who has 1,059 yards rushing in seven games, will run all over the Nebraska defense. Still, aside from a blowout loss to Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers are continuing an extended trend of playing close games. The Nebraska offense is also showing more life — totaling 476 yards on 52 plays in a 43-37 loss at Purdue two weeks ago — and Casey Thompson averaged 285 passing yards in the past three games.
Kentucky (+ 12) over TENNESSEE: The Wildcats are off a bye, and quarterback Will Levis is finally healthy. Levis passed for 372 yards and three touchdowns against the Volunteers last season. Tennessee’s pass defense ranks 130th of 131 teams this season by allowing 330 yards per game. Levis, Kentucky’s ability to run and coach Mark Stoops’ defensive schemes should make the dog live. Stoops’ defense will get stretched by Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker, but that’s obvious. The intangibles are potential situational distractions — No. 3 Tennessee is hearing the hype and has a monster game at No. 1 Georgia on deck.
Notre Dame (+ 2) over SYRACUSE: There is a lot to like about the Orange, especially quarterback Garrett Shrader and running back Sean Tucker, yet they are most effective on the ground and the Irish defense can handle the run. Notre Dame, which is stronger on the offensive and defensive lines, is also catching Syracuse in a possible letdown spot after its tough-luck loss at Clemson. Against comparable opponents, the Orange beat Purdue by three and Virginia by two.
Michigan State (+ 23) over MICHIGAN: Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh will run it up on a rival if he has the chance, but he’s had problems with the Spartans. Harbaugh is 3-4 against Michigan State, which has covered 12 of the past 14 against Michigan.
Northwestern (+ 11.5) over IOWA: The Hawkeyes are about as weak as it gets offensively, scoring 14 or fewer points in five of seven games. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is a junkyard dog. In fact, when these teams met last year in Evanston, Ill., the point spread was the same and Iowa won ugly, 17-12.
Stanford (+ 16.5) over UCLA: As Bruins coach, Chip Kelly is 0-2 against the Cardinal at the Rose Bowl. UCLA has far more offensive firepower and should win comfortably, but Kelly’s team could be in a flat spot after getting torched at Oregon last week. Stanford has two elements it needs to stay competitive — a good quarterback and an improving defense. Tanner McKee passed for a total of 608 yards in the Cardinal’s back-to-back victories over Notre Dame (16-14) and Arizona State (15-14). It’s probably wise to wait and see if this line moves to 17.
CALIFORNIA (+ 17) over Oregon: He’s not the next Aaron Rodgers or even Jared Goff, but Golden Bears quarterback Jack Plummer is getting better in a new offense. Plummer passed for 245 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in a 28-21 loss to Washington a week ago. Cal coach Justin Wilcox is a defensive wizard and a dangerous dog, posting a 14-4 ATS record in his past 18 games when getting points. The hope is that the Ducks are flat coming off a big win over UCLA.
Mississippi (-1.5) over TEXAS A&M:
Playing road favorites is not my style — and I bet against Ole Miss last week when it opened as a short favorite at LSU — yet this is more of a fade of the Aggies. The wheels are falling off a Jimbo Fisher bandwagon that’s swerving into a ditch after a three-game losing streak. A&M has the superior defense in this matchup, so maybe Fisher stops the bleeding. But the Rebels’ running attack is tough to contain and Lane Kiffin has the coaching edge plus the more motivated team.
HAWAII (+ 10.5) over Wyoming:
After awful first impressions this season, both of these teams are showing major improvement. Hawaii’s defense has allowed an average of 16.3 points in the past three games, and coach Timmy Chang is getting more production from running back Dedrick Parson and quarterback Brayden Schager. When the teams met last year in Laramie, the Cowboys were blown out 38-14 as 12.5-point favorites. The dog is worth a small play in the Saturday nightcap in Honolulu.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread