Buckeye quarterback Barrett very big X-factor

Five things to look for as No. 2 Penn State plays at No. 6 Ohio State in the game of the year in the Big Ten and one of the most important national games of the season in college football.

No. 1: QB or not QB?

Let me ask you this: Do you think J.T. Barrett is a good passing quarterback?

If you’ve watched him closely against Penn State over the years — or last year’s humiliating 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff — your answer is probably no, he’s not that good of a passer.

So, this may come as a big surprise: Barrett is tied with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees for the most touchdown passes in Big Ten history with 90. He could break the record today, and ultimately could obliterate it.

Barrett also has a staggering TD-to-interception ratio this season of 21 to 1. That’s just unheard of, and would lead people to believe he is a very good passing quarterback.

But is he? Strangely enough, we don’t really know. Barrett has been around at Ohio State for 16 years, PSU coach James Franklin joked, has put up fantastic numbers, and yet the jury is still very much out on whether he can beat a good defense with his arm.

Penn State has an excellent defense that should provide a stern challenge for Barrett. He is a terrific runner who likely will do damage on the ground, and if — a big if — he proves he can be effective and efficient throwing the ball, then the Buckeyes are probably going to win and might even win big.

But there’s a good chance Barrett will struggle throwing the ball, for several reasons.

First, PSU defensive coordinator Brent Pry will be sending a lot of pressure at the quarterback, forcing him to make quick decisions. Second, Ohio State’s receivers aren’t all that good and have struggled getting separation. Third, Barrett might put a lot of pressure on himself to come up big and thereby psyche himself out.

Barrett has been playing great of late, completing 72 percent over the past five games, and the Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in their last four. But that’s come against bad teams — UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska — so it may not be an indication of how well the quarterback plays today.

No. 2: All on the line

While Barrett is Ohio State’s biggest factor, the offensive line is the biggest element/concern for Penn State.

The line played better against Michigan, which is very encouraging. But this is a much different challenge on the road. Ohio State’s outstanding defensive front won’t tire from being on the field all day and will put a great deal of pressure on the Lions up front.

The big question is whether the Buckeyes’ line is good enough to stop Saquon Barkley on the ground and get pressure on the quarterback while rushing only four, without having to blitz a lot.

If that is the case, and Ohio State can drop seven guys into coverage, then PSU will be in trouble.

Penn State’s O-line has to do at least one thing very well, either opening up running lanes for Barkley or holding blocks long enough for Trace McSorley in the passing game. If the line does both well, Penn State can win. If the line does neither well, PSU will not win.

No. 3: Wrinkles

Barkley is going to get his touches in a variety of ways, either running or catching the ball. We saw last week that offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had some tricks up his sleeve with the wildcat and putting Barkley in the slot more.

What else has Moorhead been working on? Penn State has so many weapons on offense that it has the ability to roll out many personnel groupings that Ohio State hasn’t seen yet.

Could this be the game that backup quarterback Tommy Stevens is utilized as a major weapon, being on the field with McSorley, Barkley and perhaps even Miles Sanders? Are there new ways to get ultra-talented tight end Mike Gesicki loose over the middle or deep downfield?

Any of those ideas could lead to one or two big scoring plays, and maybe even decide the game.

No. 4: Special teams

This decided last year’s game, with PSU coming up with a blocked punt and later the game-winning blocked field goal and touchdown return.

Punter Blake Gillikin will be counted on to pin Ohio State deep and force it into long fields.

If it comes down to a field goal, neither team may feel very confident. Franklin continues to praise Tyler Davis, but the hard truth is the young man is just 6-of-13 this season and has been unreliable. On the other side, Sean Nuernberger’s longest field goal for Ohio State this season is just 33 yards.

It might not boil down to which team comes up with a big special teams play, as much as which one can avoid making a big mistake.

No. 5: Players to watch

PSU: Barkley must get his yards, but just like against Michigan, McSorley will be the key to the offense. He has to be accurate, avoid turnovers and make good decisions on when to run.

Ohio State: If Barrett plays well, Ohio State wins. If he struggles, Penn State wins.

Prediction: Barrett plays well. Ohio State 27, Penn State 20.

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