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Penn State athletic director Patrick Kraft sarcastically referenced the individuals who map out the Big Ten football conference schedule as his "friends" during the conference's media day last month.
The reason? For the third straight year, Penn State is opening its season on the road against a Big Ten opponent. In fact, Penn State has begun Big Ten Play 12 out of the last 13 seasons on the road, a trend Kraft called "unacceptable" for his program.
This year's lucky recipient of the Nittany Lions' season-opening visit is none other than the upstart Purdue Boilermakers squad looking to build off last season's surprise 9-4 campaign. Can the Boilermakers make their mark against Penn State in West Lafayette? Or will the Nittany Lions disappoint the Thursday night "Blackout" crowd at Ross-Ade Stadium and earn their first victory this season?
Fifth-year senior QB Sean Clifford leads an offense that was average at best last season, recording 25 points per game and a 7-6 record. Despite losing Jahan Dotson and his 91 catches from last year's team, the Nittany Lions have talented receivers Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith ready to step up at wide receiver as well as Western Kentucky playmaker Mitchell Tinsley.
What plagued the Penn State offense last year - and could again in 2022 - is the offensive line. Only two starters return for the Nittany Lions, but an influx of portal transfers and players from the JUCO ranks should have an immediate impact for this unit. If Penn State can correct their offensive line woes, look for returning 500-yard rusher Keyvone Lee and four-star RB recruit Nick Singleton to benefit as the two running backs are expected to share carries this season.
Eight starters and some transfer portal help comprise the Boilermakers' defense in 2022. On the defensive line, first-round draft pick George Karlaftis leaves the biggest hole in a defense that showed incredible improvement in 2021. Now, the Boilermakers will rely on Kydran Jenkins to replicate Karlaftis' impact while veterans Brandon Deen and Lawrence Johnson are expected to apply pressure in the opponent's backfield.
The back seven lost its leading two tacklers - LB Jaylan Alexander and S Marvin Grant - from 2021. Despite the losses, the Boilermakers maintained a solid core with Kieren Douglas anchoring the middle of the linebacker corps and cornerbacks Cory Trice and Jamari Brown corralling the passing defenders.
Quarterback Aiden O'Connell returns for his sixth season in 2022. The former walk-on earned his starting job this season by throwing for over 3,700 yard while connecting on 72% of his passes in 2021. Plus, O'Connell will benefit this season from a veteran offensive line led by center Gus Hartwig.
The largest unanswered question surrounding the Boilermakers' offense is who will catch O'Connell's passes. Both All-American David Bell and Jackson Anthrop finished their Purdue careers after the Music City Bowl thriller against Tennessee. Additionally, Boilermaker receivers Mershawn Rice (injury) and Milton Wright (ineligible) are unavailable to start the season. Expect talented TE Payne Durham and Iowa transfer Tyrone Tracy to garner significant targets while O'Connell develops a relationship with his wide receivers.
A strong incoming class and several standout returning players key Penn State's defense. Highly-ranked recruit Dani Dennis-Sutton should start immediately for the Nittany Lions. Joining the newcomer on the front four are tackles PJ Mustipher and Coziah Issard along with Maryland transfer Demeioun Robinson.
While the line should be Penn State's strength, the secondary has a pair of NFL-caliber cornerbacks. Veterans Joey Porter and Ji'Ayir Brown are tasked with leading the deep defensive recruiting class vying for playing time in 2022. The linebacker unit also restocked from the loaded freshman class, giving Curtis Jacobs an opportunity to emerge as its leader.
As we sit today, Penn State is a 3-point favorite and is laying -165 on the moneyline. Purdue is available at +145 at BetRivers, and the total currently sits between 54 and 54.5 across the board.
Yes, Purdue's passing offense finished fifth last season averaging 355 yards per game. And yes, Penn State should be able to move the ball against the Boilermakers. But Penn State's secondary is their strength while Purdue will rely heavily on their front seven to slow the Nittany Lions rushing attack.
This game features a strength-versus-strength matchup for both Big Ten teams that will produce less than 54 combined points. Historically, offenses sputter in the early-season games as few teams hit their offensive stride against competent competition. Even if the under falls below 52 points closer to kickoff, this is a strong pick.