We get football next week! Since the game is a rare Thursday game it is a great time to start our weekly articles leading up to game time. That means we get an early Q&A with the opposing blog. This week we get Brian Bennett from long time SB Nation site Black Shoe Diaries to discuss the Nittany Lions.
T-Mill: Penn State is a dead even 11-11 the last two seasons with only one FBS level win over a team with a winning record. What is the key to breaking out of that mediocrity this year?
Brian: Health and quarterback play. As I stare at that record from the past two seasons, it’s almost hard to fathom that Penn State was ranked in the top ten in BOTH of those years. Even more crazy is the fact that they had a nine-game win streak bridging the two years. Opt outs, injuries, and a ton of turnovers from the quarterback spot torpedoed Penn State early in the 2020 abbreviated season. More frustrating was last year when Penn State was ranked in the top five and cruising at Kinnick before quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out and the Lions lost six of their final eight games.
Those things obviously contribute to close losses and that’s what doomed Penn State especially in 2021. Here’s another hard to believe statistic: the Nittany Lions had second half leads in 12 of 13 games last year. The only outlier was at the Shoe in a night loss to Ohio State - a game in which Penn State even had a go-ahead touchdown (correctly) overturned by penalty in the fourth quarter. Keeping Clifford upright and seeing him continue to make smarter plays, as he did late in 2020 and early in 2021 when Penn State was having a lot of success, is the key.
T-Mill: Sean Clifford is now a multi-year starter like our own Aidan O’Connell. How are the two similar and how is he different?
Brian: Well, both will be 24-years old on opening night, so the level of experience is obviously what jumps out on the surface. I’d also say, as I alluded to in the previous question, their play will dictate how competitive each team is in their division this season. A last thing: both have maybe had their play either overshadowed or undervalued by having a great playmaker out wide. It seems as though the story with Purdue has been David Bell the past couple years, which takes away some of the shine from O’Connell. I’d say the same about Clifford. In 2019, it was K.J. Hamler, while the past two years, it’s been Jahan Dotson. Those guys make big plays and it’s because they’re stars, not always giving proper credit to the guy who delivers it.
In terms of difference, on the field, what jumps out is that Clifford is a talented runner, though that’s cost him time with injuries in both 2019 and 2021. He’s run for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, which many fanbases might not think about as they prepare to face him. In terms of his overall career arcs, Clifford has been entrenched as the starter since the spring of 2019, while O’Connell has bounced back and forth between backup and starter. That’s also meant that Cliff has taken the full brunt of the fanbase calling for him to be replaced. O’Connell seems to be getting buzz as the second best quarterback in the Big Ten, while many following Penn State are wondering if/when highly touted recruit Drew Allar will be ready to take over the position in 2022.
T-Mill: Penn State is long known for its defense. Does the return of PJ Mustipher mean a big jump forward, especially after he housed a MASSIVE meal at St. Elmo’s before media days?
Brian: I treated myself to a shrimp cocktail when I found out Mustipher was coming back. He’s full go after suffering an injury early in the aforementioned Iowa game. However, I don’t see Penn State’s defense necessarily making a big jump forward, simply because it was one of the top scoring defenses (tied for No. 6 with Minnesota) in college football last year.
But back to Mustipher, his return absolutely solidifies the front seven that lost a lot of talent. He’s not the only guy back who should contribute after missing all or most of last year. Mustipher, defensive tackle Hakeem Beamon, and defensive end Adissa Isaac were all slotted as starters coming out of the spring 2021. They combined for five full games.
Ironically, linebacker at Linebacker U will be the weak spot, both in terms of talent and depth as the season begins. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz should benefit from having bodies back on the defensive line and what figures to be one of the conference’s top secondaries with Joey Porter Jr. at cornerback and Ja’Ayir Brown back at safety.
T-Mill: Neither team was especially good at running the ball last year. How does Penn State look to improve there?
Brian: Penn State really struggled with getting any explosive plays on the ground. Much of that falls on an underperforming offensive line, but there were also question marks about the big-play ability of the running back room. Best thing they could do? How about bring in the top running back recruit in the country? That’s what they’ve done as it will be interesting to see how much ballyhooed recruit Nick Singleton is involved in this opening game of the year. Even Saquon Barkley only managed a single touch in his first game in a Penn State uniform.
Meanwhile, the offensive line has performed poorly during the bulk of James Franklin’s tenure. It’s, quite honestly, cost Penn State multiple games and a near-certain playoff spot in 2017. In the last couple years, Franklin has praised the offensive line unit entering the season only to see them fall flat. This year, he’s basically said “wait and see”. So, we’re waiting and seeing.
T-Mill: This is a must-win for both teams if they want to compete in their respective divisions. Who has an edge?
Brian: The strength on strength battle will be Penn State’s secondary against Purdue’s passing attack. That group really shrunk the field and they were great in the red zone early in the year in 2021. That’s what helped Penn State be a top scoring defense despite overall total defense numbers that are below the expectations for a Nittany Lion defense.
Can Penn State replicate that red zone defense? I think that’s the big key. That’s how Penn State won last year in a comparable swing game season opener at Wisconsin.
Last thing, we all know home night games, a juiced crowd, etc. are advantages. They are. I’m not discounting Ross-Ade Stadium at night at all - I remember watching that Ohio State game in 2018. The hope would be that Penn State’s advantage is that their quarterback has played road games at every place imaginable and could help his team duplicate the gritty season-opening win they got in Camp Randall last year.