Know Thy Opponent 2011: Penn State Nittany Lions

If there is one consensus about Purdue Football in 2011 it is that a 4-1 start in a fairly easy opening five game stretch is essential to any bowl hopes we might have. Sure, it may be the Indiana plan of bowl qualification, but as we have seen the past few seasons, it is hard to recover from a slow start. In 2008 we were a dismal 2-3 after our first five games. 2009 was worse as we were 1-4. Last season was better at 3-2, but the awful loss at home to Toledo made it feel worse.

Once again, 4-1 looks very possible. We should be favored in four of the five games, with only the home game against Notre Dame being one that we shouldn't win. From there, it will be up to us to find two more wins somewhere in the schedule, and I know most of you are looking toward the regular season finale in Bloomington as one of them. From there another win is needed. Unfortunately, I am probably going to personally assure that it does not come in State College.

Penn State is one of the four Big Ten venues I have yet to visit, but I plan on fixing that this season. It will likely mean a loss. Purdue has lost in my first visit to Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota (The Metrodome, I haven't been to TCF Bank yet), Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. The only place where they won in my first visit was Northwestern in 2006. While I'll do another road trip diary for this game (especially since we may be traveling with some Penn State fans) I don't expect to have it be a diary about a victory.

2010  Record: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Lost to Florida 37-24 in Outback Bowl

Blog Representation: Black Shoe Diaries, Nittany White Out, Linebacker-U.com

Series with Purdue: Penn State Leads 10-3-1

Last Purdue win: 20-13 at Penn State on 10/9/2004

Last Penn State win: 20-6 at Purdue on 10/4/2008

Last Season for the Nittany Lions

We haven't given a lot of thought towards Penn State in recent years because they have been off the schedule since 2008. Now that we share the Leaders Division with them they will be on our schedule in perpetuity unless there is ever some kind of realignment. That can be both a good and a bad thing. It is good in that they will always be there for a quality win in case we compete for anything nationally, but it is bad in that any win over them is never easy. Two of our three victories occurred in 2003 and 2004 when they were at the nadir of their recent era, but other than that we haven't beaten hem since 1951.

Last year's Penn State season saw Joe Paterno get his 400th win, a mark that will stand probably the rest of my lifetime. Other than that it was a rather mediocre season. The Nittnay Lions beat who they were expected to beat and lost the games they were expected to lose. They often lost handily too. The lone close game was a 28-22 defeat at home to Michigan State.

This season Penn State should be somewhat improved, but a tricky schedule that features a home game with Alabama, a protected rivalry with Nebraska, and trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin will be tough. Those four games will likely shape Penn State's season, with the Nittany Lions likely being favored in the other eight unless there are some surprises.

Penn State Offense:

The Nittany Lions may have a decision to make at quarterback, but whomever wins that battle will have plenty of solid receivers to throw to. Derek Moye (53 receptions, 885 yards, 8 touchdowns) returns as one of the best receivers in the league and one that will test Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen. Justin brown (33-452-1) and Devon Smith (27-363-1) also return, giving Penn State three of its top four receivers back from last season. Moye begins this season on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. Incoming recruit Bill Belton is also a four-star athlete that will play receiver. He brings speed and elusiveness to the position, plus he was a high school quarterback.

Who will be throwing to him has yet to be decided. Both Rob Bolden (112 completions, 1,360 yards, 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) and Matthew McGloin (118-1,548-14-9) play extensively last season. The deal will likely be settled long before we visit Happy Valley, but as for now it still appears wide open. My money is on McGloin, who finished last season as the starter and had the better TD-to-interception ratio. Don't count out Kevin Newsome, who also returns with some experience under his belt.

One critical area for Penn State is the running back situation, where Evan Royster is gone after rushing for running for more than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. Silas Redd (437 yards, two touchdowns) comes back as the top returning rusher and the favorite to become the featured back. Stephfon Green (188-1) should also get plenty of carries in Royster's absence.

The offensive line was decent last year for Penn State, giving up only 12 sacks and 51 tackles for loss. It should be a senior-dominated group this year with Quinn Barham, Johnnie Troutman, Matt Stankewitch, and Chima Okoli all entering their senior seasons as projected starters. Guard John Urschel is the lone underclassman as a starter, and he is backed up by senior DeOn'tae Pannell. They are what you expect from a Big Ten line. They have solid size and experience, and we have no Ryan Kerrigan as our ace to beat them. This will need to be a big day from Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston in the middle. They'll need to keep the running game in check while the secondary keys on the receivers.

Penn State Defense:

While the offense wasn't a problem last year, the defense gave up too much on the ground and quarterbacks completed 61% of their passes against the Nittany Lions. This is where Rob Henry or Robert Marve needs to have a good game. We will not have success in 2011 unless we can start moving the ball consistently through the air. I think the running game will be fine with Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden, but we need more of an offense than Henry running all over the place after the snap.

D'Anton Lynn is the top returning tackler with 75 stops and three interceptions as one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten. Stephon Morris returns with 39 tackles on the other side, giving Penn State two pretty good corners. Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino are both senior safeties that will anchor the secondary. Sukay had three interceptions a year ago, while Astorino had 70 tackles. Unless something drastically changes I don't expect to get a lot going in the passing game with their experienced secondary going against our inexperienced receivers.

Generating the pass rush up front will be the responsibility of seniors Eric Latimore and Jack Crawford. Crawford had two sacks last season in limited action. Latimore appeared in only six games. Defensive tackles Devon Still and Jordan Hill are an effective wall that will prevent us from running up the middle. Still led the team with four sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 39 overall tackles. Hill had 36 stops and two for loss. If their defensive line can control the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to play back we are, quite frankly, screwed.

Those linebackers feature two more senior starters in Michael Mauti and Nate Stupar. Mauti had 67 tackles a year ago and got into the backfield for two sacks. Stupar also had two sacks with 73 tackles. The final starter is Gerald Hodges, a junior with 31 tackles in 2010. I am not encouraged when I look at this defense. They start eight seniors and three juniors. They are loaded with experience at every position and we struggled to move against two of the worst defenses in recent Big Ten memory (Indiana and Michigan) playing at home last year.

Penn State Special Teams:

Anthony Fera is expected to handle both the placekicking and punting duties. He is a known commodity at punter with an average of better than 41 yards per kick, but he has yet to do any placekicking at Penn State.

Chaz Powell is a dangerous weapon in the return game after averaging 24 yards per kick return with a touchdown a year ago. Devon Smith was just as dangerous with over 12 yards per punt return. Penn State's coverage units were both solid, so the only advantage we really have is Carson Wiggs in the field goal kicking game. I guess we should pray for a monsoon that lets up so we can try 60 yard field goals.

Game Outlook:

We have won exactly one game in State College, and that was a 20-13 hard fought victory when we were ranked tenth in the nation in 2004. Penn State finished 4-7 that year, and they won't do that this season. The Nittany Lions have one of the most experienced teams in the conference. Recruits such as Shawn Oakman and Deion Barnes don't have to do much even though they are incoming four-star guys. We have experience in our own right after so many guys got to play last season, but the results haven't been there.

If this game were in West Lafayette I would feel a little better about it because it's not like Penn State was overwhelming last year. Unfortunately, they were still much better than us. The combination of better athletes, more experience, and actual results should give them a solid advantage unless we show we are vastly different from last year.

Prediction:

Well, I'll be buying some Yuengling while I am in the Keystone State and it will return with me for another basketball season. I also plan to enjoy seeing another Big Ten venue and visit with some of the locals. Anything more than that will be a bonus if it goes Purdue's way. Penn State should have a relatively easy win in this one. Penn State 31, Purdue 10

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