This was a sort of tale of two games for Penn State, even as the Nittany Lions cruised to a never-really-in-doubt win over a hapless Purdue team that couldn't get out of its own way. And so even though Penn State played as well for 60 minutes as well as it has in any stretch since the Michigan game, Purdue's ineptitude essentially put a mirror to the Nittany Lions. Rather than prove any sweeping statements, this game merely reflected what in three months we've learned Penn State either was or could be, and that was always going to be a team that, barring an act of God, was never going to have any difficulty dispatching the worst Big Ten team maybe in the 117 years of the conference. Purdue was never going to even challenge this Penn State team. The question was whether the Nittany Lions would challenge themselves.
We've learned that this is a team that has depth and talent at running back, a run game that has more trouble holding on to the ball than plowing through or dancing around defenders for extra yards. It's a team that has a quarterback who may well be destined for greatness, but for now is content to be efficient, and smart, and steadfastly solid. It's a team with a defensive line that will swallow up the run and occasionally bring pressure, and a set of linebackers who are almost always in position to make plays, even if they can't wrap up. It's a team with a pair of good, young cornerbacks, and a dearth of talented safeties, a team with so little depth on the special teams as to make every kickoff a nightmare. It's a team that can be its own worst enemy or its coaches' best friend, a maddeningly inconsistent team that's kept its head above water despite sanctions designed to cripple it, a team doing the crucial work of holding serve through the worst of them to lay the groundwork for when we're back at full strength.
Importantly, it's a team with obvious, exploitable faults, and so it seemed only natural that a Purdue team that hadn't put together a long scoring drive in over a month and a half did so twice yesterday, and at times, Penn State was lucky to get away with only the two touchdowns the defense allowed. Early on, a Purdue wideout got behind the safeties for what would have been a long touchdown pass had the Boilermakers' young QB been able to get him the ball; other drops and missed blocks and miscues befitting one of the worst offenses in the country disrupted a game plan that Al Borges could never have dreamed of. Purdue got the ball to the edges, using Penn State's aggressiveness against it, and took advantage of soft coverage whenever it came. But where the Minnesotas, Indianas, UCFs, and Ohio States of the world were able to capitalize on the Nittany Lions weaknesses and stubbornesses, this Purdue team rarely could, and so we saw Jordan Lucas jumping routes for one interception and another near-pick, we saw edge blitzers actually get home, we saw a much maligned third down defense get off the field more often than not. Even overshadowing the struggles, we saw sacks, and TFLs, and forced turnovers, and dominant play from a group of linebackers that has no margin for error.
And we also saw a much maligned third down offense have little difficulty keeping drives alive against a Purdue defense that put up little resistance, an offense that managed to beat only itself, whether by, improbably, these incessant fumbles (one by each feature back, though only Belton's resulted in a turnover), or drops, or an interception that seemed forced by a big hit but also appeared to be thrown directly to a Boilermaker defender. Christian Hackenberg is, at this point in his career, a competent game manager, and that's all Bill O'Brien needs right now; having Allen Robinson, who continued to be Allen Robinson, despite a nagging shoulder injury, helps in that regard. The tight ends even got involved, with Penn State running out 3-TE sets and the Hackenberg-to-Breneman connection for the first of what will be many touchdowns over the next few years. And Zach Zwinak's second-half redemption took another step forward, with the ginger bulldozer looking as good as he ever has for his third 3-touchdown game of the season.
This game taught us little about Penn State, though we learned that maybe we've been lucky that the special teams haven't been this bad before. We learned that this team isn't helmed by the same nothing-to-lose balls-to-the-wall Bill O'Brien who coached it last year--that BOB certainly would've used his timeouts with a minute left before the half in a two score game. We learned that Gregg Garrity's son is on the team, weighs about 140 pounds, and is returning punts because why the hell not?
We already knew that this was a good enough team to have no trouble dispatching Purdue. And on the last beautiful fall day of the year, in front of a full-enough, if largely disinterested Beaver Stadium crowd, maybe that was enough.