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Penn State at Purdue Preview

We’re opening under the lights and ready to go.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Let’s try this again, shall we?

Last November we started the most anticipated Purdue basketball season in recent memory. Once the Boilers reached No. 1 for the first time ever in early December things went awry and it all ended as a terrible disappointed.

Now we get to begin the most anticipated football season since probably 2005. That season did not end well, either, but the point is that it has been a very long time since Purdue football had realistic conference ambitions. We don’t need a full third of our division to be ineligible for postseason play like in 2012. We don’t need a rash of upsets. Purdue is a legitimate solid team entering this season, and winning the Big Ten West is a very reasonable possibility.

First comes Penn State though.

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)

Odds: Penn State by 3.5 According to DraftKings SportsBook

It has been a long time since Purdue beat Penn State. The last time it happened was in 2004, two weeks before College GameDay headed to West Lafayette and a certain moment happened. Since then the Nittany Lions have won nine in a row. Most of those games were by double digits, too. During their last visit to Ross-Ade Stadium they came in and dropped a 62 point nuke that stands as the most points ever given up to a visiting team in the near 100 year history of the building. Purdue was tied 17-17 at halftime, but got absolutely manhandled in the second half in a 62-24 loss.

We don’t think about Penn State much since they are in the opposite division, but they are still a name program. Purdue has so few victories over them that any win feels like an accomplishment, and this is Purdue’s best chance in quite a while. The closest Purdue has come to a win recently was a 23-18 loss in 2011 when I visited Happy Valley. That win put Joe Paterno just one victory away from the Division I wins record.

The less said about what happened after that, the better.

This is a huge opportunity for Purdue. Sure, if we lose I expect to go to a bowl game. Should Purdue win, I expect to be in the West Division race until the Minnesota and Wisconsin games.

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. He also housed a MASSIVE meal at St. Elmo’s during media days.

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

It is not often we can say this, but I think the teams are about even. The oddsmakers have Penn State as a 3.5 point favorite, and since the home team often gets a courtesy field goal that has them about a touchdown better. Like so many openers this one comes down to who is the sharpest. Can Aidan O’Connell continue the red hot pace he was on late last year? Penn State went off a cliff after getting into the top 5 and losing at Iowa City. Will a fully healthy Sean Clifford be the difference.

Both teams need this game in order to compete in their respective divisions, as it is a difficult crossover matchup. My natural pessimism says Penn State has the edge since they are the name brand and things rarely break well for Purdue, but I hope to be proven wrong. I do think it will be close throughout.