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PSU Defense Stands Tall in Fourth Quarter Against Purdue

Photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics: Daequan Hardy

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Sean Clifford wasn’t watching the replay on the Ross-Ade Stadium video board of Purdue tight end Payne Durham’s supposed circus catch, a play that would have meant game over for Penn State

Daequan Hardy was, and the board told him what he already suspected: Durham hadn’t actually caught Aidan O’Connell’s pass. The ball had briefly hit the grass, meaning a back-breaking Purdue first down would instead turn into 3rd and 6 for Penn State’s defense. As Clifford and the offense prepared for the final chance they hoped the defense would give them, Hardy and the Nittany Lions returned to the field, determined to get the ball back.

Penn State did it again. Hardy broke up a pass on the next play, the fourth of five successful fourth-quarter stops for the Nittany Lion defense. Clifford then finished the job with a game-winning touchdown pass to Keyvone Lee that clinched Penn State’s 35-31 victory, but that play never happens without the defense’s rock-solid play in the game’s final 15 minutes.

“We were just trying to get the ball back to our offense and give ourselves the best chance to win,” Hardy said. “We knew (Purdue) would try to milk the clock, and we were trying to give our offense a chance to win the game.”

The Boilermakers (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) did try to milk the clock once Chris Jefferson’s interception return for a touchdown gave them the lead, but they couldn’t get past their own identity. Penn State (1-0, 1-0) knew that Purdue wanted to be a vertical team that stretched the field, and the Boilers put the ball in O’Connell’s hands even when trying to kill the clock.

After Purdue got the ball back with the lead, Penn State forced O’Connell into eight incompletions.

The Boilers also had a completion wiped off the board by a chop block, which meant Purdue only ran 3:43 in two drives.

“We hold ourselves high in the secondary,” Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. said. “For them to come in and throw the ball a lot (without success), that was great work for us. That’s what we’re made to do. There was really nothing to it; our guys had to stick to the gameplan and believe what coach planned for us.”

Part of Penn State coach James Franklin’s plan centered around keeping his defense fresh by regularly rotating players. Last year, depth became a killer when injuries hit the Nittany Lions, and Franklin wasn’t about to let that repeat. On this night, it had an added benefit: when the game came down to the final minutes, Penn State was the fresher team.

“We had a plan to rotate; I am determined to develop depth,” Franklin said. “Last year when we weren’t able to do that, it cost us. Hopefully, that will help us in fourth quarters like (Thursday), and hopefully that will help us later in the season.”

On Thursday at least, the effects were obvious.

Purdue dominated the third quarter to take the lead, but in the fourth quarter, Penn State’s rotation paid off. Over the final 15 minutes, O’Connell was just 7-for-20, gaining 72 yards through the air. When the Boilers did try to run the ball, they went nowhere, losing nine yards on five fourth-quarter carries.

“They’re a vertical team and pass a lot,” Hardy said. “We play a lot of man, so we’re going to get winded (without rotating). Our coaches did a great job keeping our rotation fresh.”

The Nittany Lions were also aggressive when they needed to be. When the Boilers got their final chance after Penn State pulled ahead, Johnny Dixon surprised O’Connell with a blitz, earning a 10-yard loss and forcing Purdue coach Jeff Brohm to burn one of his two remaining timeouts. The next play was a 15-yard completion to Charlie Jones, but Dixon’s sack meant that catch didn’t go for a first down, burning another 18 seconds before Purdue’s next snap.

Instead of a reasonable attempt at a Hail Mary, the Boilermakers found themselves too far for O’Connell’s arm to reach. Purdue had to overcompensate, which allowed Chop Robinson to take advantage of the Nittany Lions’ coverage and get to O’Connell before he could ever launch a final pass.

O’Connell finished with 356 passing yards, but only one touchdown because Penn State didn’t allow the big plays and shut Purdue down when the Nittany Lion offense needed help.

“The numbers kind of tell a lie,” Hardy said. “I know he threw for around 400 yards, but we did a good job keeping him contained and keeping the vertical route under wraps. We had to eliminate busted plays and play to our elevens, and I think we did a good job.”

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