Penn State Football

Nittany Lions focused for road trip to Purdue

Penn State head coach James Franklin said it four extra times, in case anyone forgot.

“We’re on Purdue,” he said at his Wednesday press conference. “Purdue, Purdue, Purdue, Purdue, and that’s our focus right now.”

Will the No. 24 Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten), ranked for the first time since 2011 and riding high after their upset over Ohio State, fall flat on the road in West Lafayette?

If Franklin and the players’ attitudes were any indication this week, they won’t be overlooking the Boilermakers (3-4, 1-3).

Offense

The Nittany Lions’ offense was timely against the Buckeyes, without a doubt. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley engineered a pair of critical touchdown drives, running back Saquon Barkley dashed for a 37-yard run when Penn State needed it most, and the offensive line, led by left-turned-right tackle Brendan Mahon, allowed only one sack.

But it didn’t hit on all cylinders. McSorley completed only eight passes for 154 yards, and the Penn State offense as a whole totaled 276 yards to the Buckeyes’ 413.

Thankfully for the Nittany Lions, they’ll get a statistically soft defense to rebound against. The Boilermakers allow 441.0 yards per game this season, ranking 99th nationally and last in the Big Ten.

Franklin said this week that he likes McSorley running with more confidence — the quarterback has 37 carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns the past two games — and the coach believes that, coupled with Barkley’s natural ability, can create mismatches.

Purdue interim coach Gerad Parker is well-aware of that threat, especially after facing Nebraska dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. last weekend.

“You get a guy that’s able to throw it and get confidence the way he’s throwing the ball down the field, and you’re able to get him involved in the run game, you’ve got yourself an issue,” Parker told reporters at his weekly press conference. “We’ve got our hands full and they are doing a heck of a job, and it’s the reason they are in the position they are right now.”

Defense

Penn State’s defense will see a different look this week. After containing Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, the Nittany Lions face a true pocket passer in Purdue signal-caller David Blough.

Blough, a sophomore, leads the Big Ten and ranks 18th nationally with 2,065 passing yards. He’s thrown 14 touchdown passes this year, while also chucking 11 interceptions and averaging 44 passing attempts per game.

The Purdue gunslinger has an interception in all but one game this year, and the Nittany Lions have picked off opposing quarterbacks seven times.

Penn State’s defensive line, after helping sack Barrett six times last Saturday, will look to pressure Blough.

“He’s a big, strong guy that likes to sit back there and throw the ball around,” Nittany Lions defensive tackle Curtis Cothran said. “He’s one of the best passers we’ll see this year, so it’s going to be a good challenge to knock him off his spot and get in his face.”

Behind the Nittany Lions’ front four, Penn State linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell provided a needed boost against the Buckeyes, combining for 31 tackles.

Their leadership will be crucial to direct a defense looking to guide Penn State to its first true road win since Nov. 8, 2014.

Special teams

While Grant Haley’s blocked field goal return for a touchdown highlighted a memorable night for the Penn State special teams, there were plays against the Buckeyes that were less kind. John Reid muffed a punt, leading to an Ohio State field goal, and freshman punter Blake Gillikin saw a snap fly over his head and into the end zone for a safety.

Reid, who was replaced at returner by wide receiver Gregg Garrity after his miscue, is listed as the starter this week and was seen staying after practice Wednesday fielding punts.

Both situations were fluky, and we’ll see if they’re an issue against Purdue.

The Boilermakers, meanwhile, aren’t a real threat on kickoffs. Purdue averages 19.2 yards per return, 96th in the country. Penn State isn’t much better at 20.5 (75th nationally), but freshman running back Miles Sanders is growing and found some space on a 27-yard return against the Buckeyes.

It’s nothing too crazy, but he has the ability to break one loose.

Gillikin continues to be a threat punting the ball, and Tyler Davis has hit 11 of 12 field goals this season. His perfect streak ended last Saturday with a blocked field goal.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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