Sunday, November 29, 2015

Penn State vs Purdue: Five storylines to follow

Here's five storylines to follow in Saturday's game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. in West Laffayette:

Penn State vs Purdue: Five storylines to follow

Penn State gained only 32 yards rushing against Ohio State last week. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)<br />
Penn State gained only 32 yards rushing against Ohio State last week. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

After Penn State's whiteout was spoiled last week with a loss to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions (5-3, 3-1 Big Ten) hit the road this weekend to face Purdue (3-5, 0-4).

It's the first time since the second week of September that the Lions enter a game coming off a loss. Penn State's five-game winning streak may be over, but all is not lost for the bowl-ineligible Lions: They are still very much in the mix for the Leaders Division title.

Here's five storylines to follow in Saturday's game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. in West Lafayette:

Rush to judement: Put it simply, Penn State's run game was nonexistent against Ohio State. The Lions, who average nearly 135 rushing yards per game, mustered only 32 in their loss against the Buckeyes. It was a letdown for the Lions after they ran for a season-high 215 yards at Iowa two weeks ago, keyed by the explosive return of sophomore Bill Belton. Can Belton get his groove back or is it Zach Zwinak's time to carry the load yet again? The run game can't get much worse from the performance last week. This might be the perfect opponent to help the Lions get back in stride. Purdue's front seven have struggled lately, allowing at least 200 yards in three of their last four games.

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Is Ficken Kickin'? What's going on with Penn State kicker Sam Ficken these days? Well, it's been a storyline all season long -- or since the Virginia game when the 19-year-old missed four of five kicks. The issue is back in focus this week after Bill O'Brien revealed for the first time that Ficken has been battling through an injury. O'Brien described it as a 'quad issue,' and it has limited the sophomore in practice a bit. How long has he been dealing with this and how serious is it? That remains unclear. But after the Ohio State loss, Ficken revealed that punter Alex Butterworth has been practicing as a backup in practice. Butterworth is a Lafayette native and attended Purdue basketball and football games as a child. Could his homecoming include some extra duties on special teams, too?

Desperation mode: That's where the Boilermakers find themselves right now. They have reeled off four straight losses (by an average of 19.5 points) and need to win three of their next four to just become bowl eligible. This week, Purdue's AD issued a statement that offered lukewarm - and perhaps even vague - support for coach Danny Hope. So the team is desperate for a win. When things get desperate, anything can happen. 

Put me in coach: O'Brien has been praised all season long for his gutsy yet smart coaching moves. The fourth down conversions were somewhat a revelation for the previously-conservative Lions. The five-game winning streak -- after back-to-back losses - showed the team was responding well to O'Brien, and rapidly improving. Well, against Ohio State, that wasn't the case. A few coaching moves came into question - specifically a failed fake punt as well as some uncharacteristically conservative play - and when the Lions lost to the Buckeyes, it was clear O'Brien was simply out-coached. How will the first-year coach respond? 

Trap game? For the Lions, emotions were riding high at last week's game. Guard John Urshel hinted that perhaps Penn State was too hyped up for its whiteout game against Urban Meyer and the undefeated Buckeyes. Hype is good -- in moderation. And that's exactly what the Lions need to focus on right now: keeping an even keel. They can't afford for an emotional letdown this week. Yes, they are the heavy favorites. Yes, Purdue has had its struggles. But after this, the Lions travel to Nebraska - no easy place to play - then return home to face an Indiana team that improbably is in the hunt for a Big Ten title. If the Lions want that Big Ten title to themselves (one of the only things they can win tis year) they'll likely need to win all of their remaining games. They can't look past this one and onto the remaining schedule quite yet.

-Emily Kaplan

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About this blog
Joe Juliano has been a staff writer for The Inquirer for 30 years, covering covering Penn State football, Villanova basketball and other college sports, along with golf and the Penn Relays. This is his seventh season on The Inquirer’s Penn State beat. He previously covered the Nittany Lions for United Press International from 1976-84.

Joining Joe this season is Erin McCarthy, an intern for The Inquirer and a junior at Penn State majoring in print and digital journalism. This is Erin's first season on the Penn State football beat. She previously spent two summers as an Inquirer summer intern on the Pennsylvania and South Jersey desks. She is also an editor for the Daily Collegian, the university's student newspaper. A Delaware County native, Erin graduated from Episcopal Academy.

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Joe Juliano Inquirer Staff Writer
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