Penn State Flashes Depth, Young Talent In Dicey Purdue Win
Before the season, Penn State football defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said he needed 22 game-ready guys to operate the defense the way he wanted to. It turns out this wasn’t an exaggeration and, judging by the Nittany Lions’ contest with Purdue, is probably an understatement.
Diaz played 26 of the 34 defenders who traveled with the team Thursday night. Twenty-three of them recorded a tackle, five logged pass breakups, and two registered sacks. Penn State pounded the depth drum all preseason, and it delivered on its promises against the Boilermakers.
“I am determined to develop depth…we are going to develop depth by playing guys,” head coach James Franklin said after the game. “We plan on doing it again next week and hopefully that will help us in four quarters like tonight and hopefully that will help us the remainder of the season.”
Franklin used terms like “starter reps” in the preseason and once again did not release a depth chart. On the first series, everyone had their eyes peeled to see who earned the starting role at spots like safety and running back. In the end, it didn’t necessarily matter.
Keaton Ellis started at safety, but backup Zakee Wheatley saw a huge amount of time as well. Diaz often threw nickle, dime, and even quarter packages at Purdue’s pass-heavy offense, which kept putting new players on the field.
Joey Porter Jr. led the way for this secondary against the Boilermakers. Aidan O’Connell kept throwing at him, but the redshirt junior just kept making plays, especially down the stretch. He registered eight tackles and three pass breakups by the time the dust settled. But, when he wasn’t on the field, Penn State’s defense hardly missed a beat.
“We’ve got depth in our corner room. We’ve got a lot of dogs on the field that can play,” Porter Jr. said. “If one of us is tired or needs a play out, we’ve got guys to rotate and that’s one of the blessings we’ve got as a secondary. It’s why I feel like we’re one of the best in the nation.”
The Nittany Lions basically had relentless waves of talent ready to come onto the field.
Under-the-radar guys like Johnny Dixon and Daequan Hardy were put in big spots down the stretch and delivered. Sophomore Jalen Reed logged three tackles. Linebacker Jonathan Sutherland slid naturally into coverage packages thanks to his experience at safety.
This heavy defensive rotation was just as important across the line, where guys like PJ Mustipher and Adisa Isaac are returning from extended injuries. It’s even more important when a game lasts three hours and 59 minutes.
“In years past, we didn’t have much of a rotation. Today we did, so I was pretty fresh,” Mustipher said. “You want to stay fresh. Those o-linemen are out there every play, so why not?”
Another effect of getting lots of guys on the field is the development of younger players, which Mustipher said is “absolutely” important. Penn State brought 13 true freshmen to West Lafayette and guys like Zane Durant, Omari Evans, and Abdul Carter made their debuts.
The Nittany Lions flashed some serious young talent on the offensive side of the ball, too. True freshman Nick Singleton led the team in carries while Kaytron Allen was right behind him with eight. While neither of them put up impressive numbers, they each had moments that made it hard to not be excited about the future.
Add Keyvone Lee — who caught the game-winning pass — in there, and Penn State is legitimately three-deep at running back.
“They played their heart out. I’m proud of them,” Lee said of the true freshmen. “They grew since they first got here until now. I’m continuing to push them, continuing to help them get better…I basically told them to be yourself.”
And, of course, five-star quarterback Drew Allar made his collegiate debut when Sean Clifford headed to the locker room with cramps for an extended period of time. For a true freshman, Allar looked calm, stayed composed in the pocket, and made a few impressive throws.
He completed two of his four passes, and would’ve had a third and likely an extended drive if Tyler Warren didn’t drop a dime of a pass. Getting any true freshman experience on the road in a tough environment is critical. Getting the quarterback of the future this experience is nothing short of a blessing in disguise for Penn State.
“I think he handled it well,” wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley said of Allar. “It didn’t seem like he was rattled at all or anything like that. Honestly, he played great.”
“I thought Drew did some nice things when he was in,” Franklin added. “Hopefully we get him some time next week as well.”
Franklin’s right. With a less competitive non-conference opponent in Ohio coming to Beaver Stadium next week, Penn State will have the chance to play even more than 26 guys on defense. The Nittany Lions will want to be careful about burning redshirts, but you can expect to see plenty of new faces in there against the Bobcats.
The head coach continues to allude to how depth contributed to Penn State’s downfall in 2021. History was nearly on track to repeat itself against Purdue, but a variety of young guys stepped up to make plays when it mattered most.
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A visit from Pat Freiermuth and “We Want Drew” chants highlighted another busy Saturday in Happy Valley.