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Know Thy Opponent 2019: Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State will once again be a top 25 team in 2019.

NCAA Football: Penn State Blue-White Game Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The last time that Purdue played Penn State it was close for a half. Purdue and Penn State were tied 17-17 at the half of the 2016 game despite Purdue playing with an interim coach. The second half was not so much fun. The Nittany Lions outscored Purdue 45-7 in the second half to win 62-24, the most number of points ever given up by Purdue at home.

The good news is that this time Saquon Barkley is safely off in the NFL and cannot hurt us anymore after he ran for 207 yards and two touchdowns. The bad news is that the game is in Happy Valley, where Purdue has only won once all the way back in 2004. Purdue is only 3-14-1 all-time against Penn State and enters this game on an 8-game losing streak to them. If I were to rate the 12 games this season in terms of “most likely wins” I would put this one at the bottom, mostly because it comes on the road against a good team that has dominated us since joining the Big Ten.

2018 Record: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten East

Bowl Result: Lost to Kentucky 27-24 in Citrus Bowl

Blog Representation: Black Shoe Diaries

Series with Purdue: Penn State Leads 14-3-1

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

Last Penn State win: 62-24 at Purdue on 10/29/2016

Head Coach: James Franklin (45-21 in 7thseason at Penn State, 69-38 in 10thyear overall)

Last Season for the Nittany Lions

For most teams a 9-4 season is a good year, but it was somewhat disappointing for Penn State. They were 0-3 in their major Big Ten East games, losing to Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Two of those losses were by 5 total points, so they were close to winning the East even with the 42-7 loss at Michigan. There were some close calls, however. They were taken to overtime by Appalachian State in the opener and only beat Rutgers 20-7 in a game where they looked disinterested at best.

The bowl game was interesting. Penn State trailed 27-7 entering the fourth quarter but scored 17 straight points to make a game of it. Needing a touchdown with 4:12 left they strangely elected to kick a field goal instead of going for it. The kick was good, but Kentucky ran off most of the clock before a desperation final play.

This year we can expect more of the same for Penn State. They expect to compete for the Big Ten East title. They have a relatively easy non-conference schedule with Idaho, Buffalo, and Pitt all coming to Happy Valley before going to Maryland. They’ll probably be 4-0 when Purdue comes to town.

Penn State Offense

This is going to be a transition year for Penn State’s offense, as they lost six starters. Among them was long-time incumbent QB Trace McSorley. The sixth round Ravens pick is off to the NFL, and Tommy Stevens transferred away. This leaves sophomore Sean Clifford as the most likely starter. Clifford attempted 7 passes last season, completing five for 195 yards and two touchdowns. One was a 95-yard TD pass against Kent State.

Clifford has some weapons to rely on with top returning receiver KJ Hamler back. Hamler caught 42 passes for 754 yards and 5 touchdowns. Pat Freiermuth was one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends with 26 catches for 368 yards and 8 TDs. George Campbell will join them as a graduate transfer from Florida State.

With Penn State you can always expect a strong running game, but with Miles Sanders and McSorley both gone after rushing for a combined 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns the ground game is in a bit of flux. Three starters return on the offensive line, while Ricky Slade becomes the featured back. He had 257 yards and six touchdowns last year in a limited role, but much more will be asked of him in 2019.

Penn State Defense

Overall, the Penn State defense was pretty strong last season. It held teams to 20 points or less five times, and gave up just 20 points total in the final three games against Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Maryland.

Penn State would not be Penn State without stout linebackers, and Micah Parsons is one of the best in the business. He led Penn State with 83 tackles, 5 for loss, and two forced fumbles last season. Cam Brown and Jan Johnson round out a solid trio to be the center of the defense.

The Nittany Lions lost a pair of good defensive linemen in Shareef Miller and Robert Windsor Kevin Givens that combined for 15 sacks, the top pass rusher returns (thanks to our friends at Black Shoe Diaries for the correction). Yetur Gross-Matos led the team with eight sacks and finished with 54 tackless overall. He will test Purdue’s rebuilt offensive line. Shaka Toney added another five sacks and will provide pressure at the other end spot. In the middle Robert Windsor and PJ Mustipher are experienced tackles that can also get into the backfield.

In the secondary Penn State will benefit from having Garrett Taylor back at safety one of the spots. Each had three interceptions last year while Taylor was third on the team with 71 tackles. John Reid added two picks at one of the corner spots and should be pretty good as well. Overall all four starters return for a pass defense that was good last year, so Purdue will test it.

Penn State Special Teams

In the kicking game Jake Pinegar had a decent freshman season, hitting on 16 of 24 field goal attempts and 53 of 55 PATs. He had a long of 49 yards, so he has plenty of range even if the accuracy isn’t quite there. Inside 40 yards he was almost automatic (11 of 13). Blake Gillikin was also a solid punter, averaging 43.9 yards per punt.

In the return game Hamler handled most kicks last year, while Penn State must replace DeAndre Thompkins, who was an excellent punt returner with a 9.78 yard average and a touchdown.

Game Outlook

This is Purdue’s toughest early test and as the first Big Ten road game it won’t be easy. Since we haven’t played them in three years they are a bit of a mystery, but such is life with most of our East opponents. The lack of familiarity can also be a blessing. Penn State has yet to see a Jeff Brohm coached Purdue. The offense should have enough punch to test Penn State, but our own defense will be tested.

Even with a young quarterback Penn State is going to try and punish us on the ground. The offense is built to have a strong ground game and Slade has good speed for a back. The experience in the receiving corps will also greatly help Clifford. Purdue has an advantage at QB because of the experience of Elijah Sindelar, but will it be enough.

Way-too-Early Prediction

It is awfully tough to win at Penn State and even with the departures Penn State is going to be a solid top 25 team. It’s going to take a great game from Purdue for us to get our first road win over a top 25 team since beating No. 25 Northwestern in Evanston back in 2010. Penn State 34, Purdue 24