Penn State football looking to open 2022 season on a high note
After 243 days, Penn State finally returns to the gridiron with a primetime matchup to kick off the campaign.
The Nittany Lions are opening their season on the road, taking on the Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette, Indiana.
The blue and white won its opening game last year en route to a 5-0 start before things came crashing down, and it finished with a 7-6 record.
With the program having an 11-11 record the past two seasons, James Franklin vowed his team would be primed for more success this year.
“The biggest thing I've been pretty consistent on all preseason is I just think we're back in more of a similar role than we've been in terms of depth,” Franklin said. “We got to go out and do it.”
Penn State added great talent to its roster over the offseason, boasting the No. 8 recruiting class in the nation while striking gold in the transfer portal.
In the transfer portal, the Nittany Lions brought in wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley, offensive lineman Hunter Nourzad and defensive end Chop Robinson.
The addition of Tinsley was a much-needed move as the program had a glaring hole at the position after Jahan Dotson went to the NFL.
At Western Kentucky, Tinsley posted some of the nation’s top numbers recording 87 receptions for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The connection between Tinsley and quarterback Sean Clifford is paramount for the Nittany Lions' success, but luckily the duo are roommates and have been forming a connection since Tinsley stepped on campus.
“Mitch is actually my roommate. It's more than just work as we're hanging out a bunch, and he'll be able to come over and ask me questions and talk about this and that and the other,” Clifford said. “Mitch is a great player, and I think he's going to be on full display on Saturdays.”
This campaign marks Clifford's sixth season with the program, and although he’s one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the nation, the upcoming year poses a challenge he’s never faced.
The matchup against Purdue is the Cincinnati, Ohio, native’s final season opener, and while there’s always extra pressure to start the season on the right note, this game means even more for Clifford.
“Every year, there's always been one more than I could have, and knowing that this is my last one, it definitely comes with a little bit more sentimental value,” Clifford said. “This place has given me so much. I've just enjoyed every single minute that I've been here, and to be able to say now game one of my last season at Penn State, I couldn't be more excited to put on the blue and white and represent such a great community.”
The opposing signal-caller, Aidan O’Connell, is in a similar position to Clifford, with this season being his sixth and final.
O’Connell’s experience slotted him as one of five Big Ten West representatives for the preseason all-conference team.
The Long Grove, Illinois, native had one of the best seasons at quarterback in the conference in 2021, passing for 309.3 yards per game, the second most behind Ohio State’s All-Big Ten first team quarterback C.J. Stroud.
The Boilermakers lost their three top receiving targets from last year, with David Bell going to the NFL, Jackson Anthrop graduating and Milton Wright being academically ineligible.
O’Connell’s main target in 2022 is tight end Payne Durham, who had 45 receptions for 467 yards a year ago.
Durham, with his size, was targeted a lot in the end zone for the Boilermakers and had six touchdowns on the season. His performance made him a Big Ten Honorable Mention for the 2021 season.
Paired with O’Connell in the backfield is King Doerue, who led the program rushing in 2021 with 533 yards, but it was minuscule compared to the rest of the conference.
The two programs haven’t squared off since 2019, but Franklin has respect for his coaching counterpart, Jeff Brohm.
“I got a ton of respect for Coach Brohm and what he's done in his six years at Purdue, and really what he's done overall in his career,” Franklin said. “This is a tremendous opportunity and also a tremendous challenge. Being on the road to open the season, big 10 Thursday night blackout, all those types of things.”
Penn State is likely to establish the run early with its four-man backfield of veterans Keyvone Lee and Devyn Ford and true freshmen Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen.
If the Nittany Lions can establish the running game, that will create more passing opportunities for Clifford and give them a more potent offensive attack.
Purdue’s offense was spectacular in 2021, but with Bell, Wright and Garrett Miller no longer with the program, there’s more pressure on O’Connell.
The Boilermakers did bring in a few transfers to aid the passing attack, but the blue and white’s secondary is amongst the best in the nation with Joey Porter Jr, Kalen King and Ji’Ayir Brown.
The black and gold’s rushing attack was nonexistent last campaign, and without any improvements to the room, it’s likely to struggle on Thursday.
Franklin’s squad is fully healthy on the defensive line with the returns of P.J. Mustipher, Adisa Issac and Hakeem Beamon paired with Nick Tarburton and Chop Robinson.
The second year of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich should bring improvements to the offense, although the defense has questions at linebacker, the defensive line and secondary should be able to make up for it.
The opening contest against Purdue has the makings of a great start to the year for the Nittany Lions.
Final score: Penn State 31, Purdue 17
Alex Rocco is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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