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2022 Know Your Opponent: Penn State

The Nittany Lions hope to return to Indianapolis for the first time since 2016.

Outback Bowl - Arkansas v Penn State Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland under 20 days away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.

Next in line is Penn State, a team seeking to replace several NFL draftees that will meet the ‘Cats on Oct. 1.

The Basics

Returning Production: 64% (71% Offense, 57% Defense)

2021 Record: 7-6 (4-5 B1G)

Coach: James Franklin

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2021 SP+ Overall: 20th

2021 SP+ Offense: 72nd

2021 SP+ Defense: 6th

2021 Capsule

Following its first losing season in 16 years, Penn State was hungry to reclaim its perch among one of the premier teams in the Big Ten, and country, in 2021.

The Nittany Lions pounced to a hot start, defeating Wisconsin on the road and climbing to No. 11 in the AP poll. PSU’s 5-0 start, including a victory over No. 22 Auburn, helped the team reach No. 4 nationally.

Franklin’s team’s season changed drastically on October 9, when it fell 23-20 to No. 3 Iowa in Iowa City. Penn State proceeded to lose a nine-overtime melee with Illinois the next week and falter to Ohio State thereafter, sitting at 5-3 and sliding in the rankings.

Although the Nittany Lions defeated Maryland on the road to begin November, Michigan squeaked out a 21-17 victory in Happy Valley that left PSU unranked for good. The blue and white finished the regular season 7-5 after losing to Michigan State and were ultimately beaten by Arkansas in the Outback Bowl 24-10.

Offensive Overview

Penn State’s offense was not its calling card last season. Quarterback Sean Clifford’s efficiency was relatively stable — 134.4 in 2021 compared to 137.4 in 2020 — yet the Nittany Lions averaged 376.4 yards of offense and 25 points per game, both of which were outside of the top six in the conference.

Franklin’s major offensive centerpiece was receiver Jahan Dotson, whose 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns earned him an All-Big Ten selection. With Dotson being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft this offseason, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will presumably make sophomore Parker Washington and transfer Mitchell Tinsley (Western Kentucky) the primary targets.

PSU obtained little success on the ground a year ago, averaging just 107.8 rush yards per contest and 3.2 yards per carry. Leading rusher Keyvone Lee returns, but the Nittany Lions must brace the transfer of Noah Cain (LSU). Look for incoming five-star back Nick Singleton to garner totes.

Offensive line coach Phil Trautwein must manage the departure of three of his five starters, including tackle Rasheed Walker. Consequently, PSU added coveted transfer Hunter Nourzad, who should man one of the tackle spots.

Defensive Overview

As indicated by its prolific SP+, Penn State fielded one of the most stout defenses in the country last season.

Edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie paced the Nittany Lions in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (18); his success earned him a second-round selection in the Draft. Moreover, pass rusher Jesse Luketa will transition to the professional ranks. Expect transfer addition Chop Robinson (Maryland) to fill such massive shoes.

PSU’s linebacking corps will also need retooling. Brandon Smith and leading tackler Ellis Brooks are now in the NFL, which puts the onus on players like Curtis Jacobs to step up.

The Nittany Lions boasted one of the best secondaries in college football, led by current Chicago Bear Jaquan Brisker. Sans Brisker, expect Ji’Ayir Brown to lead the safety room. In terms of corners, PSU loses Tariq Castro-Fields but retains superstar junior and potential high pick Joey Porter Jr.

Three Players to Know

WR Mitchell Tinsley

Tinsley finished seventh in the country with 1,402 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, collecting a Second Team All-Conference USA nod. While the 6-foot-1 wideout is dangerous from anywhere, his PFF grades when targeted from medium (99.8) and deep (99.3) range are nearly perfect. Switching from Bailey Zappe to Clifford, expect Tinsley to constitute a significant portion of PSU’s offense — putting draft evaluators on notice.

DL P.J. Mustipher

Mustipher had just one sack in 2021, but the junior played in only six games due to a knee injury. Even in such few matchups, Mustipher tallied 16 stops and a 72.4 PFF grade, which ranked fourth on PSU’s defense. The 6-foot-4 DL was named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-Big Ten First Team and could ascend draft boards come April.

CB Joey Porter Jr.

The younger son of legendary Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, Porter Jr. has made a name for himself in the defensive backfield. The redshirt junior had four pass deflections and an interception in 2021, good enough for a spot on the All-Big Ten Third Team.

With his name already in NFL circles, expect Porter to be targeted little by opposing offenses this season.