Early in the third quarter of Penn State’s win over Minnesota on Saturday, wide receiver Parker Washington was running a deep route to the end zone.
As he neared the goal line, a floating pass came in from quarterback Sean Clifford. In order to outsmart safety Terell Smith, who draped him in coverage, Washington moved ahead of him to snatch the ball in the air for a 35-yard touchdown.
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“Just perfectly timed on the climax,” Greg McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback and color commentator, said on the ABC telecast.
Washington’s acrobatic catch offers a glimpse of the threat posed by the Nittany Lions when Ohio State travels to Happy Valley for a top-15 game on Saturday afternoon.
For nearly two months of the season, the undefeated Buckeyes battled other talented receivers such as Michigan State’s Jayden Reed or tough running backs such as Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen.
But Penn State contains the most complete mix of skill position talent between Mitchell Tinsley and Washington, as well as Nicholas Singleton, a running back who is among the Big Ten’s best runners as a rookie.
“The combination of quarterback and wide receiver will be the biggest challenge so far,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said. “They’re a good collection of talent, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and the quarterback.”
The Nittany Lions’ use of their point guards is led by Clifford, a battle-proven quarterback who is also a polarizing figure within his own fanbase. Some Beaver Stadium fans booed Clifford during pre-game introductions last week as coach James Franklin stuck with the super senior as a starter instead of turning to announced rookie Drew Allar after his first loss at the Michigan.
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While not as prolific as other passers in the conference with arm strength, Clifford has always been a capable caller with a 13-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in seven games.
Ohio State sees its experience behind center as an advantage for the Nittany Lions. He made 40 career starts over a span that began in 2019.
“He’s played a lot of football,” Day said, “and a lot of guys who play that much football, they’ve got so many shots under their belt that they’ve seen so many different things that that in itself makes them dangerous. ”
Part of the Buckeyes’ defensive success this season has to do with coordinator Jim Knowles’ ability to disguise fronts before the ball is broken, causing some confusion for attacks identifying looks.
Clifford’s experience might make him better equipped than most quarterbacks to handle that variety.
“He’s a veteran,” Knowles said. ” He is very intelligent. He’s good at reading what you’re doing, delivering the ball. He is hard. Hang in there. He can blur. He’s just a really good quarterback. He is an operator.
His composure was evident on the touchdown pass to Washington on Saturday as he took a hit from a defensive tackle while throwing a pass downfield.
Washington had a 100-yard receiving game against the Buckeyes last October as a complement to Jahan Dotson, the star receiver who is now in the NFL, before taking on a bigger role with Tinsley.
Washington has a team record 30 catches for 388 yards and a touchdown while Tinsley has 28 receptions for 340 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Brenton Strange, who caught 17 passes for 245 yards and four touchdowns, is also a staple in the passing game.
Knowles pointed out this week that Nittany Lions receivers are all good.
“They can go up and win a lot of 50/50 balls,” he said. “They are good road runners. I just think this whole operation will be a challenge for us.
Ohio State defense has a challenge against Penn State
The back of the Buckeyes defense has been vulnerable, at least in part because of injuries.
Starting cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown were sidelined for multiple periods. Brown has missed three of the past four games, including last week against Iowa. Day did not elaborate on the issue, but said Brown was not expected to be out long term and would be back soon.
The most encouraging development for Ohio State, and one that could help them on Saturday, is the progress shown by Jordan Hancock. He missed the first half of the regular season with an apparent lower-body injury, but made his debut in the win over the Hawkeyes and played 15 snaps.
“He’s got a lot of length and skill,” Knowles said, “but he also sees the formation well. He sees the fit. He can predict before the snapshot what’s going to happen. He’s got great footballing intelligence.