It had been 48 days since Purdue, the de facto punching bag of the Big Ten, had put up more than 14 points on an opponent — a stat landing them 122nd in the FBS for points scored.
That streak ended Saturday when the Boilermakers notched 21 points on Penn State and scared the Nittany Lions when they were creeping up on them near halftime.
So while Penn State’s 45-21 win over Purdue is assuredly a confidence booster for the Nittany Lion offense that posted 289 yards on the ground and clinched at least a .500 record, the defense and special teams allowed the visitors to hang around much too long.
Penn State’s offensive efficiency over a subpar Purdue defense led the Lions (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) to ultimately overwhelm the Boilermakers (1-9, 0-6 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium in front of 96,491 fans.
The Nittany Lions’ ground-and-pound gameplan was bolstered by a 289-yard rushing assault on what’s one of the worst run defenses in the country. Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch each had carries, but Zwinak impressed most with 149 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns.
Both of Penn State’s top backs, despite the numbers they posted, continue to struggle with ball security.
With the Lions up 14-7 in the second quarter, Belton succumbed to the force of defensive end Greg Latta and coughed up the ball on his own 35. In the second half, Zwinak had a drop himself, however, it was recovered by the Lions.
After Penn State logged its fourth touchdown of the day in the second quarter, it seemed the Lions were going to create enough separation to put the Boilermakers firmly away before halftime.
But as the first half waned, Purdue kickoff returner Raheem Mostert danced around Penn State’s hit squad and broke off for a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Purdue received at the start of the second half and quarterback Danny Etling orchestrated a seven-play, 84-yard touchdown drive capped by an 11-yard rushing touchdown by the quarterback.
The drive put the Boilermakers just a touchdown behind Penn State, with the score standing at 28-21. A forced fumble by end Deion Barnes on Purdue’s next possession came at a critical juncture, though, and was the stand Penn State needed to put them away.
In the fourth quarter, the special teams’ inconsistencies continued with missed tackles abound and Purdue successfully executing a fake punt with fullback Kurt Freytag rushing for 14 yards and moving the chains.
Bill O’Brien recognized the missed tackles and blown coverage on special teams won’t be tolerated against a formidable Big Ten foe.
“Our hit squad, we got to do better there,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to work on Monday and get that fixed. And we will. [Assistant coach] Charles London does a great job with that team. Maybe we need to replace some guys. Maybe get some guys that are a little bit hungrier.”
Penn State’s defense looked stronger this week than it had during its lackluster first-half performance in the 24-10 loss last week to Minnesota. But unfortunately for the Lions’ D, that’s really not saying much.
The conference’s worst averaged just 12 points per game prior to Saturday and had scored just three touchdowns in its last four games. Even worse is its struggling run game, as it’s the only Big Ten team to average less than 100 yards on the ground per game (68.1).
When asked about the defense’s development through 10 games, O’Brien said postgame that the unit played well because it communicated well.
“They gave up the drive at the beginning of the half, that was tough,” he said. “We had a couple times we could’ve gotten off the field. Missed a tackle. It was good for them to come back the next drive and bow up. That’s within your unit complementing each other. That was a bad drive we gave up, give Purdue credit.”
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg deflected a question about defensive and special teams performances after the game, quickly switching from addressing the second-quarter kickoff return to complimenting what showed promise Saturday — the offense.
“You can’t do anything about the kickoff return,” Hackenberg said. “I think that really helped them and overall, I don’t think we punted today so it was a good offense, good execution we played well. We played good complementary football.”
Anna Orso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.