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Five Questions as Buckeyes gear up for visit to Penn State

Baron Browning-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning and the Buckeyes are looking for a win at Penn State. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Five Questions as Buckeyes gear up for visit to Penn State

COLUMBUS — There was a little rust showing on Ohio State, at least for a quarter or so.

A couple big plays were given up on defense. There were a few missed blocks on the offensive line. The overall energy wasn’t quite where the Buckeyes wanted it in the first game without fans in the Horseshoe.

But none of that lasted very long before the elite talent eventually kicked into gear for the three-time defending champions, who wound up cruising as expected on Saturday in the season-opening 52-17 win over Nebraska. And considering how significant the jumps tend to be from Week One to Week Two in college football once some reps are under a team’s belt, that certainly bodes well for Ohio State as it hits the road for the first time this week with a primetime clash at Penn State on deck.

“Honestly, that’s what comes with a first game,” Ohio State captain Wyatt Davis said. “[Nebraska was] well coached, they had a great scheme for us and we just have to look at the film and adjust moving forward. Credit to them, because they came out swinging and they got us for a little bit.

“But we responded and swung back.”

When the Buckeyes starting punching, few teams anywhere are able to handle their power — and Nebraska certainly couldn’t.

Can Penn State in a game that was originally projected to be a matchup of the two best teams in the Big Ten? Lettermen Row has Five Questions to start the conversation ahead of the trip to Happy Valley for the Buckeyes.

Chris Olave-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave left the win over Nebraska with an injury. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Will Chris Olave be ready for Ohio State?

The Buckeyes got through training camp with every projected starter available for the opener, and for the most part they looked to survive a physical, head-hunting threat from Nebraska in good shape. But there was one vicious hit that could have a lingering impact on Ohio State heading into Penn State, and the status of Chris Olave will bear monitoring throughout the week.

The star receiver left the game early after absorbing a shot near his head, spending time in the training tent before eventually being taken to the locker room for the final quarter of the blowout win. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day indicated that Olave seemed to be in good spirits after the game, but there was no immediate update on whether the junior would be ready to go against the Nittany Lions. Despite the overflowing collection of talent at wide receiver, the Buckeyes are at their best with Olave on the field, so there is perhaps no more pressing question for the program over the coming days.

How might Buckeyes tweak defensive rotation?

With no non-conference tuneups to work with, the normal position battles that might get sorted out in September suddenly had to be balanced with the fact that Ohio State was trying to win a Big Ten game. The Buckeyes still were able to get reps for just about everybody, though, so it will be interesting to see if the pecking order changes at all against Penn State.

On the defensive line in particular, it took some time before Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith were able to get in the action and make an impact. Similarly, once Haskell Garrett was inserted in the mix, the defensive tackle was an undeniable force in the middle and looks like a worthy starter for the Buckeyes moving forward. Did Marcus Hooker do enough to validate the work he did in training camp to earn the top job at safety or will Josh Proctor be able to push for more work there? The competition never stops for the Buckeyes, and those positions might still have some throughout the next few weeks.

What did Ohio State learn about rushing attack?

The Buckeyes were content to rotate tailback on a series-by-series basis in the opener, and the ground game seemed to struggle to find a rhythm in the process. There’s certainly no reason for Ohio State to panic since Week One is always about working out the kinks for everybody. Even J.K. Dobbins looked a bit out of sorts in his season debut a year ago — and that obviously turned out just fine.

But Dobbins was also unquestionably the lead option for the Buckeyes a year ago, and the game plan on Saturday brought back some bad memories of his struggles in a two-man game plan with Mike Weber two seasons ago. Were the Buckeyes simply getting more information about Trey Sermon and Master Teague before deciding what direction they want to go at Penn State — or are they committed to going back to another attack that tries to lean on two guys equally? There might normally be more time to evaluate the options, but there is no time to waste with the Nittany Lions already waiting on Saturday.

Master Teague-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State running back Master Teague scored a pair of touchdowns in the opener. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Will Buckeyes make changes in return game?

Ohio State has been willing to go through growing pains with returners in the past, sticking with potentially dangerous weapons through some rocky reps with an eye on the future rewards. Garrett Wilson is a perfect example of the long-term benefits of that approach, and it seems a relatively safe bet that he’s going to snap the punt-return drought with a touchdown this season.

On the other side of that coin is Demario McCall, who has had numerous chances to carve out a role on special teams but hasn’t been able to turn the corner. The senior has always tantalized with his speed and elusiveness, but ball-security issues simply haven’t gone away. Considering how potent the offense is, Ohio State doesn’t even necessarily need a huge spark on kickoff returns as much as somebody who simply can consistently field the football and make the right decisions with it. There are plenty of talented young players waiting in the wings, and the Buckeyes have a decision to make in the return game.

How will Ohio State handle first road trip?

The Buckeyes know how to travel and have plenty of veterans who can show the freshmen the ropes. But there will be some new elements for everybody involved this week as Ohio State deals with its first trip during the pandemic and everything that comes along with that.

There’s a benefit to not having fans in Happy Valley, of course, since the planned Whiteout lost all of the intimidation factor and communication difficulty. But beyond that, Ohio State has to make sure it’s still spaced out during meals and meetings, for example, and that gets more challenging when the team is leaving the familiarity of its methodically-designed setup at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That might seem like a small detail, but the Buckeyes are creatures of habit and this is the first time it will be dealing with life on the road during this unique season.

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Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.