Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions (5-3) vs Purdue Boilermakers (3-5)

Justin K. Aller

Can Penn State bounce back from its first conference loss? Can Purdue pick up its first conference win? We'll find out Saturday!

Penn St. Nittany Lions (5-3) vs. Purdue Boilermakers (3-5)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Ross-Ade Stadium (Capacity: 62,500), West Lafayette, IN
The Line: PSU -2.5
TV: ESPNU -- Tom Hart (play by play), John Congemi (analyst)
Weather: Mostly cloudy, high of 46.

COACHES:

Bill O'Brien:
PENN STATE RECORD: 5-3, 1st year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PURDUE: First Meeting

Danny Hope:
PURDUE RECORD:
19-26, 4th year
OVERALL RECORD: 54-48, 9th year (4th FBS)
VS. PENN STATE: 0-1

Purdue Offense vs PSU Defense -

It's been a remarkably up and down season for the Boilermaker offense. Entering the Big Ten schedule, Purdue had all the momentum in the world--in each of its two wins over Eastern Michigan and Marshall, the offense dropped over 50 points on the MAC cupcake du jour. Throw in the 48 Purdue rolled up on Eastern Kentucky and the 17 they scored on Notre Dame (the most the Irish have allowed all season!), and yeah, hopes were pretty high for the Purdue offense.

But as we all know well, the Big Ten is a different animal. In the highly anticipated home showdowns with Michigan and Wisconsin, the Boilermakers could only manage 13 and 14 points, respectively, and while that ticked upwards in the 29-22 loss in Columbus, 7 of those points came on a kick return for a touchdown, rather than the offense. Another seven came on the first play from scrimmage--what I'm getting at is that Purdue didn't really sustain too many drives. And last week, Minnesota got out to a 44-7 lead before a trio of late and inconsequential touchdowns made the final score at least somewhat respectable.

Robert Marve, who orchestrated that late "comeback", will get his second start of the season at quarterback on Saturday, replacing Caleb TerBush, who was a miserable 5/18 before getting pulled. Yes, Robert Marve, who enrolled in Miami in 2007 is still in college. It's been a rocky road for Marve since his transfer: he's thrice torn his ACL--most recently in September--and has been jerked around in what's been a long-running three-headed quarterback battle. But he leads the trio in pretty much every passing stat--completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD/INT ratio, and rating--and Purdue fans have been calling for him all season. He'll have a deep array of skill players around him--seven Boilermakers have rushed for scores, and 10 have caught touchdown passes--led by the Akeems Shaver and Hunt at running back and wide receivers Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross, who are tied at 5th in the Big Ten with 38 catches each.

Still, moving the ball against the likes of Eastern Kentucky and Minnesota, in garbage time, is a far cry from being able to do the same thing against a resurgent Penn State defense that's improved drastically against the pass. The Nittany Lions have also been able to generate good pressure lately, and even though Purdue's nominally a spread passing offense that borrows from Joe Tiller's old "basketball on grass" philosophy, the Boilermakers have allowed the second most sacks of any team in the conference. As long as the Penn State defense comes to play--and I'd never bet against a unit led by Michael Mauti--the Lions should be able to bend but avoid breaking on Saturday.

Schematic advantage: Penn State

PSU Offense vs Purdue Defense -

Funny thing about this Purdue team--when it's clicking, it's firing on all cylinders, and when one unit struggles, the rest of the team falls to meet it. The Purdue defense had been playing just as well as the offense in the nonconference, and similarly got shellacked once Big Ten play stated. The formerly hapless Wolverines and Badgers beat up on the Boilermaker D, and both used their strong performances to catapult their way to sustained success since. Once again, Purdue was uncharacteristically stout in Columbus two weeks ago, turning Ohio State over four times (forcing two interceptions and recovering two fumbles).They held Braxton Miller in check--to just 113 yards passing and 47 rushing, and in the process giving Penn State perhaps a bit too much optimism.

But that proved to be a blip, as last week Purdue gave up more points to Minnesota than the Gophers had scored in their previous three games combined (fine, 7 were on a pick-six. But still). True freshman Philip Nelson, playing in just his second game, carved up the Purdue D, to the tune of 15/22 passing (he started 13 of 14) for 246 yards, 3 TD, and no interceptions. Neither could they stop Donnell Kirkwood, who ran for 132 yards on just 22 carries. It was not a pretty sight.

The lone bright spot on the defense is its leader, All-Conference caliber defensive tackle Kawann Short, who should be at 100% after leaving the Minnesota game with an ankle injury. Short has been a supremely disruptive force inside, racking up 9 TFL, 4 sacks, and, get this, 4 blocked kicks. Given how Penn State's line failed to adjust to the surprisingly dynamic Ohio State pass rush, it's on Bill O'Brien to craft a game plan that won't let Purdue's best (only?) defensive player beat them. I'm pretty sure he will, and that's all that needs to happen for Penn State to be able to put up points. Once the offense gets going, they'll be able to shift to the downhill-running NASCAR offense, a vital facet of the offense that was nowhere to be found last week. Get Bill Belton softening up the defense, Zach Zwinak running over people, throw in the matchup problems Penn State's tight ends will pose--at least, if Kyle Carter is good to go--and a kept-upright Matt McGloin will be hard to stop.

Schematic advantage: Penn State

Special Teams -

For once, Penn State won the special teams game last week--a blocked punt turned into a touchdown, and Sam Ficken drilled a field goal. But at the same time, Alex Butterworth continued to be...let's be nice and say erratic on his punts, and the return game was so bad that O'Brien's thinking of shaking up that whole unit.

But Purdue's somehow attempted only 6 field goals on the season--making four--and its two-headed kicking platoon has combined to miss five extra points. At least they're in the middle of the pack in punting and second in kick return average, thanks to the touchdown return two weeks back. They're also second-to-last on punt returns, one spot behind the Lions.

Schematic advantage: Purdue

Prediction -

An 0-4 start to the Big Ten schedule isn't something you're ever okay with, but it wouldn't have hurt this much for the Purdue fanbase if it weren't for the team's strong play in the preconference--to date, Purdue's given Notre Dame its best test of the season. But as the calls get louder and louder for Danny Hope's head, this could be something of a statement game for the Boilermakers, as Hope's last stand to make a bowl game begins now. Robert Marve is getting the chance to prove himself he's longed after for six years, and there's that old cliche about the Chinese character for opportunity and chaos and whatever.

Sorry, not buying it. The Penn State team that lost Saturday to Ohio State was the same one that beat up on Iowa and showed such fortitude in coming back against Northwestern, the coaching staff just didn't make the adjustments or have the same magic touch. The concern, of course, is for the team to still be hungover--last week was this team's Super Bowl, and without jockeying for a bowl berth or the inside track to Indianapolis, there's not much to play for. Except, you know, heart and pride and everything that O'Brien, and his liutenants Mauti and Zordich, have been drilling into his team's head for the past 3 months. The offense bounces back, the defense picks up where it left off in the first half, and Penn State gets back on the winning track in advance of its trip to Lincoln.

Penn State 31 - Purdue 17


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