Penn State has had an interesting season on the football field to say the least.
It started with promise of a true freshman quarterback, a rare neutral site game and the hope of a bright future. Since then, it’s been highs and lows each week like clockwork.
Since beginning the season 2-0 after wins against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, the Nittany Lions (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) alternated losses and wins in each of their next seven games.
With that trend in mind, the Lions are coming off a disappointing road loss at Minnesota, 24-10. The loss featured a myriad of the reasons why the team find themselves with a pedestrian 5-4 record in 2013, but comes knowing that a week later provides the proverbial Big Ten piñata –Purdue- in Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
The Boilermakers (1-8, 0-5 Big Ten) are just plain bad; they’re the 123rd ranked scoring team in the nation (11.8 PPG) and have surrendered 37.2 points per game to opponents. Their lone win came against Indiana State, a place more known for the prowess of Larry Bird on the hardwood than anyone on the gridiron.
For a Penn State offense coming off of a dud against the Gophers, looking across the field at a Purdue defense allowing 438.4 yards per game should help any lingering issues.
But even with an inferior opponent coming to town, the Nittany Lions have to be mindful of ball security, which has been an issue in 2013. The Penn State offense, and young QB Christian Hackenberg in particular, has coughed up the ball too often. The key turnovers have been in the worst possible spot, too: the red zone.
Three weeks ago, with Ohio State leading 7-0 the Nittany Lions drove down the field to respond with a score of their own. Instead, Hackenberg was picked off in the end zone, and Penn State was left with nothing. The momentum carried the Buckeyes offense to 21 unanswered points before the Nittany Lions could muster up points of their own in an eventual 63-14 loss.
Two weeks ago, down three to Illinois and inside the opponent five-yard line with minutes left on the clock. Bill Belton fumbles away a game-tying field goal attempt fighting for extra yardage. The Nittany Lions were able to get the ball back, force overtime, and eventually win, but it could have been another disastrous red zone turnover, but Penn State wins.
Last week, down 14 but on the Minnesota two-yard line with a chance to cut the lead to one score with more than six minutes left. Instead, Hackenberg fumbles the snap and Minnesota salts the rest of the clock away; Penn State loses.
Red zone turnovers are a killer, and will cost you football games.
Good news for the Nittany Lions this week is that they should have plenty of chances in the red zone to make the trips count. Penn State’s ground game has surged in recent weeks behind both Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, and should continue to against a defense allowing 223.6 yards per game in 2013. The Boilermakers are also allowing opponents to score on 94.7% of their red zone chances, so the Nittany Lions might not even have a chance to cough the ball up.
With success expected on the ground, Hackenberg should have some things open up in the passing game downfield throughout the game, where he’ll look for his main target Allen Robinson. Robinson is fourth in the NCAA with 1,102 yards on 73 catches this season.
As for the Purdue offense, the keys have been handed to true freshman Danny Etling, who has struggled as expected since taking over under center five games ago for senior Rob Henry. The Boilermakers will try to establish Akeem Hunt and the ground game to make life easier on Etling, but Purdue back are averaging under four yards per carry in 2013 and could find running room tough against a solid Penn State front seven.
Where the Penn State offense can be had is through the air. John Butler’s defense is allowing close to 240 passing yards per game, and has been burned in recent weeks on long scores. Getting confidence back among the members of the secondary should be easier this week while facing a inexperienced young quarterback on the road.
In the end the Nittany Lions run wild over the Purdue defense and onto their sixth win of the season, with big games against Nebraska and Wisconsin looming to finish off the 2013 season.