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Penn State Prepped To Limit Purdue’s Air-Raid Attack In Season Opener

Last season, Penn State football’s pass defense established itself as one of the most dependable units in the Big Ten by allowing just under 200 yards per matchup through the air. 

However, in 13 contests a year ago, the Nittany Lions only faced three quarterbacks who finished within the top 50 nationally in total passing yards.  

In just two days, Penn State’s secondary is set to square off against sixth-year signal caller Aidan O’Connell, who ranked No. 11 amongst all quarterbacks with 3,712 passing yards in 2021. Moreover, in less than three full seasons as Purdue’s starter, the precise passer has amassed nearly 6,000 from scrimmage. 

While the matchup poses a stark challenge for the Nittany Lions’ secondary, especially without the veteran leadership of Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields, seasoned safety Ji’Ayir Brown believes his squad is well-equipped to take on O’Connell’s unique skillset.

“You know, me personally, I love going against great quarterbacks,” Brown said. “I love to see what kind of tricks they [have] up their sleeves and how they’re going to attack me as a safety and as a defense, and I’m up for the challenge”

Aside from a sheer production standpoint, O’Connell has proven to post gaudy numbers more efficiently than almost any other quarterback across the country. 

As a fifth-year focal point a season ago, the Illinois native ranked sixth overall in completion percentage by connecting on nearly 72% of his throws. More impressively, O’Connell’s career completion rate stands at a 68.4% clip, which ranks as the Big Ten’s best among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts. 

“He’s a very efficient quarterback,” Brown said. “He throws the ball extremely well and just puts the ball in some tight spots. He makes you play great defense on the backend, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

With O’Connell’s unusually high completion percentage at the forefront of the Nittany Lions’ preparation plans schematically, most would expect first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to put an emphasis on limiting long sustaining drives propelled by executing gains in short spurts.

But unlike most quarterbacks who boast abnormally high connection rates, O’Connell has been able to maintain his unique precision on chunk play attempts.

Throughout former Purdue wide receiver David Bell’s 28-game career with the Boilermakers, the recent third-round NFL selection was able to surpass the 100-yard receiving mark 57% of the time. 

According to linebacker Jonathan Sutherland, the Nittany Lions are prepared to limit potent deep shots, which propelled Jeff Brohm’s squad to a pair of ranked upsets over Iowa and Michigan State last season. 

“I would just say their ability to get the ball down the field [stands out], you know,” Sutherland said. “They have great passing concepts and routes, and schemes, so just stopping the vertical shots downfield is going to be something that we emphasize.”

Although the threat Purdue poses to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s secondary appears daunting, the former Miami head coach has been no stranger to producing timely interceptions in bunches while in South Beach. 

Under Diaz’s reign with the Hurricanes, the turnover chain was unboxed 25 times across his three-year stint at the program’s helm. 

Now, by pairing Diaz with Brown, who returns after leading the NCAA with six picks individually in 2021, the turnover tally through the air should only increase this time around for the Nittany Lions. 

“We pride ourselves on takeaways and getting the ball back, you know, being under Manny [Diaz],” Brown said. “I can definitely see us having some more turnovers this season. If the cards play out the way we want them to play out, we’re definitely going to have way more takeaways than we did last year.” 

In 2021, Purdue’s offensive staff elected to throw the ball on 59.5% of all snaps, prevailing as one of the most unbalanced attacks in the Big Ten. Conversely, in last season’s opener, the Nittany Lions faced a Wisconsin offense that ultimately ran the ball on a conference-high 65.4% of all downs. 

While the two season openers over the past two campaigns couldn’t differ more in regards to defensive preparation techniques, Sutherland thinks his squad will be more than ready to make an immediate stamp of positivity in 2022, regardless of what the Boilermakers throw at his unit. 

“I think it’s a, you know, a statement game,” Sutherland said. “Anytime you can go on the road [in the] Big Ten conference, you know, the first game of the season, I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase what our team is all about.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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