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Purdue at Penn State: Five things to watch

The Boilermakers are missing two of their most important offensive players, and their defense has struggled, but the Nittany Lions can't afford to be overconfident at home.

Ricky Slade (3) is part of Penn State's four-headed running attack.
Ricky Slade (3) is part of Penn State's four-headed running attack.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

The unbeaten Penn State Nittany Lions will host one-win Purdue at noon Saturday.

Here are five things to watch.

Guarding against overconfidence

Last week’s rout at Maryland looked ridiculously easy, so easy that many Terrapins loyalists in the sellout crowd exited early. With a rough three-game stretch -- at Iowa, Michigan, at Michigan State -- approaching, the Nittany Lions would like to maintain their consistent performance on offense, defense, and special teams.

They have reason to be overconfident. Purdue’s best player, All-America wide receiver and kick returner Rondale Moore, will miss the game with a leg injury. Quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who passed for 932 yards in the Boilermakers’ first two games, is out with a broken clavicle.

The Boilermakers’ defense has struggled all season, ranking 108th in points allowed, 118th in pass defense and 113th in total defense. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan completed 21 of 22 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns against them last week.

Still, the Lions must show the same focus and attention to detail they exhibited last week.

The awkward four-headed running back

It’s Game 5, but the Lions will continue to rotate four running backs. Head coach James Franklin has said the same thing every week, and he repeated it Wednesday while deflecting a question about Ricky Slade, last year’s backup to Miles Sanders, being ready to break out of the pack.

“I think all four of our backs, we like,” he told reporters. “I know you guys want me to talk about something else. We like all four of the backs a lot. We’re going to keep rotating those guys.”

Slade has rushed for only 49 yards on 20 carries but leads the backs with six receptions for 90 yards. As a group, the quartet has rushed for 508 yards, a 5.8-yard average, and 11 touchdowns.

“Ricky’s done a great job in the passing game as well as the run game, but we’ve got four backs,” Franklin said. “We’re not ready to name a guy. We’ll have four guys play.”

Purdue’s passing attack

The Boilermakers lead the Big Ten and are sixth in the nation in passing offense at 351 yards per game. While their attack will be hampered by the loss of Moore and Sindelar, Purdue still will present a challenge, according to cornerback John Reid.

"They’re going to find ways to get their guys the ball, whether it’s in open space or down the field,” Reid said. “They really believe in their athletes a lot. They’ve got a great passing game.”

Because Purdue has the second-worst rushing average (68.3 yards per game) in FBS, Penn State can load up on defending the pass. But backup quarterback Jack Plummer and freshman wide receiver David Bell (14 receptions, 17.4 yards per catch) demand the Lions’ undivided attention.

Better on punt returns

While the Nittany Lions are one of the least penalized teams in the country, they showed a lack of discipline on punt returns last week with three penalties. None of them impacted any long returns by KJ Hamler but the sophomore game-breaker is averaging just 6.1 yards a return on the season. The Lions have to find a way to spring him on a long return.

Those throwback white cleats

Penn State will wear throwback uniforms honoring the history of the program, but all the players can talk about is the white cleats they’ll be wearing. “I’m excited to play in them and I’ll be having my sweet feet on,” Hamler said. “I feel fast in my white cleats. It’s something when you wear all white on tape, it makes you look fast. I’m already fast, but it makes you look faster.”

Penn State vs. Purdue

Saturday, noon, Beaver Stadium, State College

TV/Radio: ESPN; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)

Records: Penn State, 4-0, 1-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 12 in AP poll; Purdue, 1-3, 0-1.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 49-21; 73-36 overall). Purdue, Jeff Brohm (third season, 14-16; 44-26 overall).

Series: Penn State leads, 14-3-1. The Nittany Lions won their most recent meeting in 2016, 62-24, at West Lafayette, Ind.