COLUMBUS -- The band is back together again, and Ohio State will need it at full strength heading into next week's Big Ten Game of the Year at Penn State.
On Saturday the fourth-ranked Buckeyes welcomed back coach Urban Meyer from his three-game suspension just in time for a remote-control 49-6 rout of Tulane at Ohio Stadium. Meyer's return was as much an exhibition as the game was for OSU.
It would be hard to glean anything meaningful from such a lopsided affair. Indeed, none of Ohio State's first four outings have revealed much considering the level of competition. Oregon State, Rutgers and Tulane are all 1-3, and the one foe with a pulse, TCU, was thumped 31-16 by unranked Texas on Saturday. Still, the 2-2 Horned Frogs held Ohio State's offense without a TD in the first half and led 21-13 in the third period before wilting.
So, what to make of Saturday night's matchup in Happy Valley?
It figures to feature lots of points considering the firepower on each team and the uneven play of both defenses.
The 10th-ranked Nittany Lions aren't as dynamic as a year ago, with running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki now in the NFL. Yet James Franklin's team has home-field advantage and quarterback Trace McSorley returns. If anyone can wrest All-Big Ten QB honors away from Dwayne Haskins, it's McSorley. Running back Miles Sanders ripped Illinois for 200 yards on Friday night and the Nittany Lions hung 63 on the Illini in their tune-up.
Ohio State has gone 74-8 under Meyer largely based on a spectacular running game that revolves around the quarterback and his ability to operate the zone read. However, the Buckeyes have shifted gears dramatically this season and are a pass-first outfit with redshirt sophomore Haskins enjoying a brilliant start.
So far this year he's 87 of 115 for 1,194 yards, 16 TDs and 1 INT. But in direct contrast to J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, he is no threat to run.
"If you don't have a dual-threat quarterback you better be extremely accurate or it's going to be hard to run the ball because they're just going to load the box on you," Meyer conceded after the Tulane beating.
Happy Valley will provide Haskins with his first Top-10 opponent, a challenge Barrett was uncanny at managing, compiling a spectacular 9-3 record against Top 10 teams in his career (with six of those wins away from home).
Haskins' accuracy has allowed OSU to move the ball in a different method than previous seasons, and fueled a traditionally potent offense to continue on its merry way while taking a new path. Yet as happened with Cardale Jones in 2015, the Buckeyes have lingering questions in the red zone, and were just 4 of 12 on third-down conversions against TCU.
A healthy running game alleviates both of those concerns. Where that aspect of Ohio State's offense ranks at the moment is debatable.
Talent isn't the question. Mike Webber was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year two years ago, and J.K. Dobbins ran for 1,407 yards as a true freshman and was MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game in 2017. Both have looked good at times this year, and pedestrian at others behind an offensive line that looks more comfortable pass blocking than blowing people off the ball.
A year ago undefeated and second-ranked Penn State took a huge lead before Barrett cut them to pieces with the greatest game of his career (33-of-39 passing for 328 yards passing, 4 TDs and 95 yards rushing) leading the Buckeyes to an epic 39-38 win.
In 2016 Penn State rallied for an upset with 10 points in the fourth quarter, thanks largely to a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown and a blocked punt to set up another score.
The last two years the winner of this game has won the Big Ten championship. This year's survivor will have an inside track on continuing that trend.