STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – With the offense and special teams sputtering at times, the Penn State defense continued its dominant level of consistent play Saturday, lifting the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions to a 35-7 Big Ten victory over Purdue before a sun-drenched crowd of 106,536 at Beaver Stadium.
Eight days after the defense allowed 128 total yards and 2.2 yards per play to Maryland in a 59-0 blowout, the Lions (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) reduced those numbers to 104 total yards (minus-19 rushing) and 1.9 yards per play against the Boilermakers (1-4, 0-2). That number was enhanced by a near-program-record 10 sacks, three by Imhotep Charter graduate Shaka Toney.
But the offense, which had put 28 points on the scoreboard in the first 16 minutes of the contest, managed just seven the rest of the way against one of the Big Ten’s poorest defenses. Maybe they relaxed, or took their foot off the gas, or lost focus, or whatever, but the Lions must find better consistency in time for next week’s trip to Iowa.
“We weren’t as clean with our execution,” coach James Franklin said. “I thought last week for four quarters we really played a complete game. It felt like maybe after getting those early points, maybe we took a deep breath and exhaled, and we don’t live like that around here. We play for four quarters, six seconds at a time, aggressive for four quarters.”
Sean Clifford threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score on Penn State’s first four possessions of the game. His 7-yard scoring pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth just 43 seconds into the second quarter made it 28-0, but that was to be the Lions’ last points until Noah Cain’s 2-yard run with 5 minutes, 44 seconds left to play.
In the meantime, there was an interception of Clifford, a missed 35-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar – his first misfire of the season – and a third quarter that saw 42 total yards, three first downs, and four punts.
“I think that we kind of stalled out,” said Clifford, whose other TD passes were 23 yards to K.J. Hamler and 72 yards to Jahan Dotson. “We were definitely executing, but we weren’t finishing, and that’s on me, that’s on everybody, honestly from top down.
“I’m excited how we played in the first half. Obviously we wanted to score at the end. So just overall, we’ve got to get some things cleaned up, have a better mentality coming out for the second half.”
But ah, the defense. With Purdue missing star playmaker Rondale Moore and fifth-year senior quarterback Elijah Sindelar because of injuries, the Lions’ front four teed off on redshirt freshman Jack Plummer, who was 13 of 27 for 119 yards.
Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos had two sacks and six other players got into the sack column. Toney, who now has five sacks on the season, said it could have been even better.
“We left a lot of sacks on the field, didn’t have a lot of” tackles for losses, he said. “We’ve got to get better. It was an OK day and people will think we’re being modest, but we hold ourselves to a little bit higher standard. It’s never enough. We’ve got to keep going. We want to get to the quarterback every time he drops back.”
Linebacker Micah Parsons, who picked up his first sack of the season, said the team wanted to put the heat on Plummer.
“We knew he was a young redshirt freshman guy, so I knew our front had to be dominant as usual,” he said. “We put a lot of pressure on him, showed him some looks that he probably hadn’t seen before. I think we executed our game plan.”
The defense did. The offense, not so much, for a long stretch. And special teams didn’t go well. Hamler set up the first two TDs with punt returns of 17 and 26 yards but struggled in the second half with judging whether to catch punts. One Purdue punt hit Jonathan Sutherland as he was preparing to block for Hamler and the visitors recovered.
But none of that affected Penn State’s getting off to a 5-0 start for the ninth time since it began Big Ten play in 1993.
“I think we’re a confident football team right now,” Franklin said. “I think we’re doing some really good things. I think we can be a little more consistent on special teams, a little more consistent on offense, but we’re really doing some nice things in all three phases.”