It’s Thursday Night Lights as Penn State hits the road to open the 2022 season.
Penn State (0-0) vs. Purdue (0-0)
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Ross-Ade Stadium, East Lafeyette, IN
TV: FOX - Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst), Jenny Taft (sideline)
Weather: It’s setting up for a perfect night of late-summer football...clear skies, and temperatures in the low 80s during the day will cool down to more comfortable levels after kickoff.
PENN STATE RECORD: 67-34, 9th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 91-49, 12th Year
VS. PURDUE: 2-0
PURDUE RECORD: 27-29, 6th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 57-39, 9th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 0-1
Penn State will be playing its fifth season opener against a Big Ten opponent, with a record of 4-1 in those games...the Nittany Lions will once again have its Big Ten opener on the road for the seventh straight year, and 12 of the past 13...Penn State and Purdue will be playing for just the third time since 2013...Penn State is 111-22-2 all-time in season opening games...Penn State holds an overall record of 15-3-1 against the Boilermakers...this will be just the sixth time Penn State has played a game on the first day of September, wjth a 3-2 record...the last game played on September 1 was in 2018, when Penn State squeaked past Appalachian State 45-38 in overtime.
PURDUE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Aidan O’Connell is back at quarterback after a productive season in 2021. He finished the season with a 71.1 completion rate and 28 touchdown tosses, and really came on towards the end of the season. He finished with a remarkable 534 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Music City Bowl thriller against Tennessee. He also finished the regular season with a 16:0 touchdown:interception ratio during the last five contests. O’Connell rises to the occassion, having some of his best games against premeire competion, most notably during upsets of then-#2 Iowa, and Michigan State, who was ranked #3 at the time. He also had a fantatic perfomance in a loss to Ohio State, going 40 for 52 for 390 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Penn State will not need to worry about O’Conell hurthing them with his legs, however. He had just one game with more than one rushing yard last season, an eight-yard performance against Notre Dame.
O’Connell will be without his two major tagets from last season. All-Big Ten performer David Bell went on to become a third round pick in May, while Milton Wright was ruled academically eniligible at the start of the season. Tight end Payne Durham is the leading returning passcatcher, and he does play a large role in the offense. He finished ‘21 with 45 catches for 457 yards and six scores.
Purdue’s rushing offense was somehow worse than Penn State’s lethargic ground game in 2021. The Boilermakers managed just 84.2 yards rushing per game, and seven touchdowns the entire season. Senior King Doerue is back as the starter, but he will need to show a vast improvement. He only had three games with more than 50 rushing yards, and failed to make the century mark in any single game.
Penn State has loads of talent returning to the secondary. However, the linebackers will be a giant question mark. Curtis Jacobs returns and will be a playmaker at the WILL spot. However, the other two will be quite limited in experience. Jonathan Sutherland has claimed the other outside ‘backer (SAM) spot after spending the last three years as a reserve at safety and special teams ace. Projected starting middle linebacker (MIKE) Tyler Eldson mostly played special teams in 2021, and had 12 tackles on the season.
The defensive line has a chance to be outstanding, but will be relying on some new faces to have big seasons. Most notably are a pair of five-star defensive ends in Maryland transfer Chop Robinson and true freshman Dani Dennis Sutton, the 29th best overall player in the incoming class. The Nittany Lions get P.J. Mustipher back after losing him to injury against Iowa. If he fully bounces back, he will be among the top defenive tackles in the nation.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. PURDUE DEFENSE
The Nittany Lions offense is set up for success...as long as the offensive line does its part. Sean Clifford is back for his fourth season as QB1, and should be in for a big year if he remains healthy. Despite losing Jahan Dotson, who was the 16th overall pick in the NFL Draft, there is still loads of talent at receiver, as Parker Washington will be one of the nation’s best, and the uber-productive Mitchell Tinsley joining via the transfer portal. They will be joined by three talented returning tight ends looking to make a bigger mark on the offense this fall. Leading rusher Keyvone Lee is back, and two highly-touted true freshman (Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen) are poised to make their mark from the get-go.
However, finding any type of reliability with the offensive line has remained elusive. The Nittany Lions lost three starters, and thanks to some recruiting misses and bad luck, there is almost no experienced depth outside of the starting five. Thursday night will be a huge indicator of what to expect from the offenive line this season, as much is unknown heading into the fall.
Purdue is replacing some key talent on all three units, but has enough returning to not expect a dropoff this fall. Defensive end Kydran Jenkins came on strong in 2021, to lead the team with five sacks. Middle linebacker Kieren Douglas returns in the pivitol role for the defense, and was third on the team with 67 tackles in 2021. The secondary looks to be the strength of the Boilermakers defense heading into the season, led by standout safety Cam Allen, who finished with four interceptions and 65 tackles last season.
Purdue welcomes back Jack Ansell at punter. While he does not have a huge leg, he has the precision to regularly pin teams deep in their own territory. Mitchel Fineran returns to take on placekicker duties after a successful year, connecting on 24 of 29 attempts with a long of 49 yards. Interestinly enough, all four of his missed attempts were in the 30-39 yard range.
Jake Pinegar seems set to reclaim the starting kicker job after losing out to Jordan Stout while recovering from an injury. Pinegar was 9-of-13 with a long 40 yards in the shortened 2020 season. He went 11-of-12 the previous season.
We’ll find out which punter will be replacing the giant leg of Jordan Stout. The competition has been tight between Barney Amor, a new addition after transferring from Colgate, and Gabe Nwosu, who surprised coaches with several long blasts during the Blue-White Game.
Purdue-31, Penn State-28
The Boilermakers are coming into the season with plenty of momentum. While Penn State ended the season with a thud, Purdue went 5-1 in the homestretch with the loss at Ohio State. They also had upsets against the #3 and #4 teams in 2021, breathing new life into the program. And while the bowl games are not what they used to be, the Boilermakers ended the season on a huge high note with an overtime thriller against Tennesee, in a game that was obviously very meaningful to them.
This is a new season, however. Penn State can put all of its problems that led to a late-season collapse behind them. They’re healthy, they’re talented, they have strong leadership, including two four-time captains. I just don’t know if I can trust the offense finding the consistency, especially if the offensive line doesn’t take a massive leap forward - something we’ve been promised for years.
The teams looks very similar on paper - both return experienced quarterbacks, both attempting to transform a poor ground game, both looking to replace playmakers on defense. This should play out as much on the field, but the thing that frightens me is Purdue being able to pick on the young linebacker crew. This could keep drives alive to help the Boilermakers produce points late in the game, as well as keeping the ball out of Clifford’s hands to quash the chance of any fourt quarter heroics. Add the night time atmosphere with a hyped-up crowd, and the slight edge seems to be with Purdue.
Let’s hope they prove me wrong.