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No Preseason? No Problem. Penn State Football Relying On Fundamentals Ahead Of Purdue Opener

There’s a certain rawness to the first game of a college football season.

All the preseason hype, projections, polls, and storylines come to a head and then completely dissolve once the first kickoff is teed up. Some coaches, analysts, or fans think they might know how the game is going to go. Others, including Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, are in the dark.

“We’re the only sport — pro, college, scholastic — that doesn’t have an exhibition game before we start playing,” Diaz said at Media Day. “We’re the only sport that just says, ‘hey, let’s just kick it off and have it be for all the marbles'”

Diaz is right. Unlike the NFL, college football has no preseason period or joint practices. There’s no measuring stick to see how well your team stacks up to competition until the first game. And the first game counts.

Also, unlike the NFL, one loss can completely derail a college football season. In the age of a four-team playoff, Penn State’s national championship hopes would basically vanish with a loss to Purdue.

Purdue. That’s where the Nittany Lions are traveling for their week one opener this Thursday. It will be the third time in as many years Penn State opens its season on the road with an in-conference game. It’ll also mark the seventh year in a row it’s opened Big Ten play with a road game and the 12th time in 13 years.

A season-opening win in Madison sparked a five-game win streak last year. In 2020, a week one loss to Indiana was the start of a historic five-game skid. James Franklin knows just how important this opener is.

“I think it really kind of sets the tone and their temperament all summer and all camp,” the head coach said. “I do think it’s different. I also think going on the road also is a factor.”

Perhaps because of this, Franklin supports some sort of preseason action with a different program. In fact, he said it’s been talked about for “a long time,” including ideas about a spring format or a scrimmage with a team that’s close in location.

But, for now, the format remains as is. Penn State might think it’s a good team, but it won’t know for sure until late Thursday night in West Lafayette.

So, how do the Nittany Lions prepare for this? For Diaz, it goes back to fundamentals. He noted things like special teams, tackling, and protecting the football as extra important factors in deciding openers.

“Usually, openers are about yourself…It’s about your conditioning level,” he said. “It’s about your ability to do the things where you’re not always challenged to do in training camp.”

Since no tape on the 2022 Nittany Lions or Boilermakers exists, Diaz is suggesting the outcome will rely more on flexibility, raw talent, and athleticism than scheme. Mid-game adjustments will come into play as well, putting the pressure on Penn State’s coaches to quickly react to Purdue’s game plan.

The lack of preseason scrimmages puts extra pressure on one position in particular — the quarterback. Sean Clifford quipped that the day after the first game is always a “shock.” In practice, quarterbacks typically wear the same color uniform as the defense so everyone knows not to hit them. This makes the season opener even more of a raw experience, but Clifford doesn’t mind.

“I’ve never had — other than high school — scrimmages. I’ve never had it any other way. I think that the preseason model is always good to get some reps under you, but we also scrimmage [ourselves],” the starting quarterback said. “It’s not like you’re jumping into it blind.”

This is an area where Clifford’s veteran status will come in handy as well. This is his fourth year as a starter, and he’s experienced three consecutive years of opening the season with a Big Ten opponent on the road.

But, Purdue has more of the same on its sideline. Aidan O’Connell is in his sixth year and comes in with plenty of experience as the Boilermaker’s field general. Both quarterbacks will need to play with a low heart rate and count on the fundamentals of those around them to win the game.

Franklin has been pretty vocal about Penn State’s scheduling misfortunes. He’s right. Opening conference play on the road for 12 out of your last 13 years is unfair. It’s unfair, but it’s also an exciting opportunity to make things go right.

“This is what you work for in the offseason for real. I mean, what better way to really put it all on the plate than go out there against a Big Ten opponent? So, I think it’s special,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “It’s a great opportunity…we can’t wait to go out there and put on a show.”

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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