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Know Thy Opponent 2022: Penn State Nittany Lions

Purdue starts the year under the lights at home.

Syndication: York Daily Record Dan Rainville / USA TODAY NETWORK

Sorry I am late, everyone. The last few weeks have been busy and I completely forgot to begin the 12 part opponent preview series. I usually try to do one per week around the time the football countdown starts, but I am already behind on that. That means you’re likely getting TWO of these per week, plus I am going to try and add in the opponent blogger interviews as well.

For Purdue, we enter the season with the highest expectations since 2005. The Boilers are coming off of the first nine-win season in 18 years, and one of only a handful of seasons in school history with at least nine wins. We return one of the best quarterbacks in the country (at least statistically), and enough pieces despite losing three players to the draft that there is reason for excitement. I think we can legitimately contend for the Big Ten West title and be a top 25 team.

All of that starts with a prime time home game against Penn State on the opening night of college football. Purdue has been in this game before, as it lost the 2018 opener to Northwestern in a close game despite Rondale Moore exploding onto the scene. This is a similar type of matchup. Penn State will also begin as a fringe top 25. Since it is a conference game we have to be ready, or we’ll already be behind in the divisional race before the season even gets started.

It feels like a lot is riding on this. Win, and Purdue is a serious contender in the West and will be favored to be undefeated heading to Minnesota in early October. Lose, and we will likely need a perfect run through the divisional opponents to head to Indy.

Penn State Nittany Lions

2021 Record: 7-6, 4-5

Bowl Result: Lost to Arkansas 24-10 in Outback Bowl

Blog Representation: Black Shoe Diaries

Series with Purdue: Penn State leads 15-3-1

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

Last Penn State win: 35-7 at Penn State on 10/5/2019

Head Coach: James Franklin (67-34 in 9th season at Penn State, 91-49 overall)

Last Season for the Nittany Lions

It was a tale of two seasons for Penn State a year ago. The Nittany Lions raced out to a 5-0 mark with an excellent defense. They had impressive wins over Wisconsin (16-10) and Auburn (28-20) and were ranked 4th when they headed to Iowa on October 9th. A late 44 yard TD pass to Nico Ragaini gave the Hawkeyes a 23-20 win, and the bottom fell out for Penn State.

The Nittany Lions struggled big time to a 2-6 finish. After a bye week the offense was punchless in a 20-18 loss to Illinois that needed NINE overtimes. They managed wins over Maryland (31-14) and Rutgers (28-0), but lost close games to Michigan (21-17) and Michigan State (30-27). In their round robin against the other three Big Ten East giants they went 0-3.

Since winning the Cotton Bowl with an 11-2 mark in 2019 Penn State has been a .500 team. They are 11-11 in that time, and that includes a 9-game winning streak that bridged the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

This feels like a weird game because it is only the third matchup with Penn State since 2013 despite sharing a conference with them. We’ve had non-conference home and homes with Missouri, Cincinnati, and Nevada more recently. Penn State’s last visit to West Lafayette was a 62-24 beatdown against the zombie post-Hazell firing team in 2016, where the Nittany Lions set a record for most points scored by an opponent (something that happened four times under Hazell).

Who to Watch on Offense

Sean Clifford – QB – Like Purdue, Penn State is set at quarterback with a guy coming back for his extra COVID year. Clifford was solid last year with 3,107 yards passing and 21 TDs against just 8 interceptions. Like Aidan O’Connell, he split some time with other starters before seizing the role fully last year. He is more mobile than AOC though. He has close to 900 yards rushing in his career with 10 touchdowns. He is not run-first, but he can move a bit. He has 62 career TD passes and 24 interceptions.

Parker Washington – WR – Jahan Dotson was one of the top receivers in the conference in 2021, but he is off to the NFL as the No. 16 overall pick. That leaves Washington, who was last year’s No. 2 with 64 receptions and 820 yards plus four scores. Losing a player like Dotson is on par with Purdue losing David Bell, while Washington was basically their Milton Wright.

Keyvone Lee – RB – Penn State really struggled to run the ball last year despite a ton of four-star backs. Lee was the leading rusher with 530 yards and 2 scores. As a team Penn State averaged a dismal 3.2 yards per carry. Purdue averaged 2.8.

Overall Penn State was 9th in the Big Ten in scoring at 25 ppg, but 13th in rushing at 107.8 yards per game, only ahead of Purdue. They were fourth in passing though at 268.5 yards per game.

As a final offensive note we get to welcome home Purdue legend Taylor Stubblefield. Stubby is Penn State’s offensive recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach. This is his third season in Happy Valley, and this is the first time in his coaching career he will face Purdue.

Who to Watch on Defense

PJ Mustipher – DT – There is a tree in the middle of the defensive line. Mustipher is a huge defensive tackle at 6’4”, 329 pounds and was a first team all-Big Ten selection despite missing the rest of the season after hurting his knee against Iowa. He had 21 tackles in six games, three for loss, and one sack. He is one of the best defensive tackles in the conference.

Ji’Ayir Brown – S – Brown was one of the leading ballhawks in the country a year ago with six interceptions. He finished the year with 73 tackles and broke up an additional five passes. He had an 87 yard pick-six against Maryland and two of his picks came in the bowl game loss to Arkansas. That made him a Third Team all-Big Ten pick.

Adisa Isaac – DE – Isaac was an interesting prospect that was coming into his own, but missed all of last season due to injury. He had 13 tackles in nine games in 2020 and played in 11 games in 2019. Dani Dennis-Sutton, a five-star recruit and one of the best HS prospects in the country also figures to play along the line.

The defense was pretty solid for Penn State overall last year. They were third in the conference at 17.3 points per game, and Purdue lost its games against the top two defenses in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They had a pair of shutouts too in Indiana and Rutgers. They were 10th against the run at 152.4 yards per game, but third against the pass at just 199.8 yards per game. Purdue will test that pass defense.

It should also be noted that Penn State has a new defensive coordinator in Manny Diaz, who was let go from Miami after three mediocre seasons as head coach. He was also their defensive coordinator from 2016-18 and created their infamous turnover chain. They had a very solid defense in his three years as coordinator at The U, as they rode his defense to a 10-0 start in 2017. Former Purdue assistant Anthony Poindexter is on his defensive staff.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Jake Pinegar – K – Pinegar is back in the starting role at kicker after he was passed over by Jordan Stout last year. He hit 20 of 25 field goals in 2019 and 2020 combined, but was just 1 of 2 last year. Stout also handled punting duties, but is gone. Dotson also was their top returner, they need new kick and punt returners.

Game Outlook

I kind of view these teams as pretty even. There are holes on both sides of the ball due to departures. Purdue lost a first round pick in George Karlaftis and they lost a first round pick in Dotson. Arnold Ebiketie was an excellent defensive end that had 9.5 tackles last year that was a second round pick of the Falcons. Our loss of Bell and Karlaftis is basically equal to their loss of Dotson and Ebiketie.

Both teams struggle to run the ball. Both have a middle of the conference defense. Both have experienced quarterbacks in their last year of eligibility. Purdue has an advantage up front as they must find three offensive line starters and Purdue only needs two, one of which was taken care of with the incoming transfer of Sione Finau.

It is always hard to being the season with a conference game because it raises the stakes right from the jump. Ideally, we would have Indiana State first as a warm up, but we don’t get that choice. Look for this one to start a bit tentative.

Way-too-early Prediction

Again, I think these teams are almost even, so I am going to go with home field advantage. It is a night game at Ross-Ade and I expect a sellout as there is a lot of excitement coming off of last year. Purdue 27, Penn State 24