The No. 12 Penn State Nittany Lions (4-0) will take on the the Purdue Boilermakers (1-3) in Beaver Stadium at noon Saturday (ESPN) in a Big Ten matchup. Here are five things you should keep an eye on:
Can QB Sean Clifford and PSU maintain the momentum?
Penn State’s previous game — a dominant 59-0 win over Maryland — was one of the most complete games of the James Franklin era. Sean Clifford threw for a halftime school record of 287 passing yards, the defense shut out the Terps despite playing with third- and-fourth-teamers at the end, and Penn State was 9-of-14 offensively on third downs.
The Nittany Lions were close to perfect in their last game — so will they be able to reproduce that same effort? Will Clifford take another step forward while the offensive line keeps him clean in the pocket? Can the defense put a stop to Purdue’s top-10 passing offense? This game will go a long way in showing whether the performance against Maryland was an anomaly, or the start of a dominant Penn State team, one that belongs in the same conversation as Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Penn State has obvious talent and the ability to flash. But can it be consistent? If it can, maybe it’s time to start talking about the potential for a College Football Playoff berth.
Purdue’s replacements for WR Rondale Moore/QB Elijah Sindelar
The Boilermakers’ injury list is a long one this week, but it’s headlined by two names at the top: wideout Rondale Moore and quarterback Elijah Sindelar.
Moore is an All-American and arguably the Big Ten’s top playmaker. He’ll be replaced on the depth chart by Jackson Anthrop — who has 10 catches for 113 yards this season — but his production could be replaced more by true freshman David Bell.
Bell is a four-star wideout who stands at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds — and he’s worth keeping an eye on. He had scholarship offers from the likes of Ohio State and Penn State but picked his home-state university. According to 247 Sports, at his No. 113 overall recruit ranking, Bell is the highest-ranked four-year skill-player that the Boilermakers have had since QB Kyle Orton (No. 100) in 2001.
At quarterback, redshirt freshman Jack Plummer will be taking over. He doesn’t have the arm of Sindelar, but he has a reputation for being a cerebral player — and he does have 70 pass attempts already this season.
He nearly rallied Purdue after taking over the last game with a 38-17 deficit. (Minnesota won 38-31.) And Jeff Brohm has shown he’s not afraid to pass, no matter the personnel.
Of course, that might have something to do with having one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks, too.
RB Ricky Slade and PSU’s RB rotation
Sophomore running back Ricky Slade opened the season as the starter of the four-back rotation, and he was expected to be the heir apparent to Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders.
But, through four games, he has just 20 carries for 49 yards. And Journey Brown has gotten the nod the last two games to start. So, when asked to name his high point so far this season, Slade struggled.
“I don’t think I’ve had a high point this year,” Slade said earlier this week.
Four games is a small sample size, and RB coach Ja’Juan Seider said last week that he hasn’t been disappointed in Slade this season — outside of the body language he showed after a fumble against Buffalo. Sometimes, the offensive line doesn’t have a good play blocking. Sometimes, the defensive line plays out of its mind. And, sometimes, there’s just not a lot of opportunity for whoever’s in the backfield.
But this isn’t the start anyone envisioned for Slade, and Saturday is yet another opportunity to change that narrative. It’s not as if Slade hasn’t made any plays — he has six catches for 90 yards — but he’s currently sixth on the team in rushing, behind quarterback Sean Clifford (167 yards) and backup QB Will Levis (59 yards).
Brown and true freshman Journey Brown both have 80-plus yard TDs already this season and boast home-run speed. True freshman Noah Cain is Mr. Consistency, a bigger back that picks up a handful of yards every carry. And Slade ... still appears to be finding his niche.
This could be the game he goes off. Or maybe another back in the rotation has a big game. That’s the interesting thing with this running-back-by-committee approach; it’s a little different every game.
True freshmen/backups making an impact
Penn State is more than a 28-point favorite in this game and, although anything can happen in college football, it sure looks as if this game will be headed toward “blowout” territory early on. And that could mean plenty of time for the true freshmen and backups.
In the last game, James Franklin plugged in his backups by the middle of the third quarter — so, if PSU follows a similar script this game, the starters should be gone by the start of the fourth.
There are plenty of future stars worth following here. True freshman cornerback Keaton Ellis has already earned situational playing time with the starters, and a blowout could mean he’s out on the field quite a bit alongside fellow true freshman CB Joey Porter Jr. LB Brandon Smith has already earned a reputation for his hard hits, and DE Adisa Isaac registered 1.5 sacks last week during mop-up duty.
Sixty-six players saw the field against Maryland last week. And, depending what happens Saturday, that number might even grow against Purdue.
Penn State’s ‘alternate’ uniforms
You’ve got to be a real Penn State fan to appreciate the “Generations of Greatness” theme, in which the Nittany Lions wear alternate uniforms that take on different characteristics from other uniforms throughout history.
“We do these alternate uniforms and I think here, in this community, it’s a big deal,” James Franklin said Wednesday night. “Nationally, people turn on their TV and they’re like, ‘You guys did nothing. What’s the alternate uniform?’”
The changes to Penn State’s uniforms are subtle. A few examples: Numbers will appear on the helmets, just as they did between 1959-1961 and 1967-1974. Facemasks will be gray (1970-1972), and the pants will have a single stripe (1952-1968).
And best of all, according to the players, the cleats will be white (1979).
“I just feel clean; I feel fast,” Hamler said about the white shoes. “It’s something where you wear all white on tape, it makes you look faster. I’m already fast — but it makes me look faster.”
The differences aren’t jarring, and it’s been a great idea for the program. It celebrates tradition while, at the same time, offering something a little unique. So if something seems a little different Saturday, you know what it is.