Penn State football: Chop Robinson arrives in a hurry to boost Manny Diaz's defense
Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell couldn’t have expected the pressure that came upon him, or how quickly it arrived.
His Boilermakers had time for 1 more play as they tried to rally after blowing their late-game, 31-28 lead against visiting Penn State.
The Nittany Lions hadn’t brought much pressure all night, especially not from their front 4. And this time, with only 2 seconds left and a miracle touchdown 58 yards away, Purdue had 6 players blocking and Penn State only 3 rushing. Normally in this situation, a quarterback can sit in the pocket, pat the ball a few times, and heave up a Hail Mary.
Not this time. Chop Robinson, Penn State’s latest highly-touted transfer defensive end, wasn’t having it.
Talk about timing and burst. Robinson blasted around Purdue’s right tackle so fast that running back King Doerue didn’t have time to see him, let alone help block him. By my stopwatch, Robinson hit O’Connell 1.94 seconds after the ball was snapped. I’m not big on advanced analytics, but I think that’s good. Maybe even exceptional.
Robinson didn’t get credit for a sack, because O’Connell somehow pushed the ball forward just before being down. Since it was the last play of the game, the covering official ruled it an incomplete pass and got off the field. Intentional grounding could have been considered, but that was a moot point. The game was over.
And therein lies the rub for Penn State fans who want to focus solely on numbers. Robinson did next to nothing, statistically, all night. The rest of the defensive line didn’t either. Heck, only 3 Lions posted more than 3 tackles. It was a strange game, statistically speaking.
Robinson had 1 tackle and the defense’s only QB hurry — the play described above. The starting DEs, Adisa Isaac and Nick Tarburton, combined to match Robinson’s 1 tackle. (Tarburton took the goose egg.) The starting interior linemen, PJ Mustipher and Hakeem Beamon, each matched Robinson’s 1 tackle. Among the guys up front, only reserve DE Amin Vanover had multiple tackles. Yep, you guessed it, he had 2.
Penn State’s 2 sacks came courtesy of blitzes from the second and third levels. Linebacker Jonathan Sutherland had the first one, defensive back Johnny Dixon the second. Both came in the fourth quarter. Sutherland’s led to a 3-and-out. Dixon’s cost Purdue 10 yards and a timeout during the last-gasp drive that ended with Robinson’s big play.
Stats aside, Robinson proved he can play every bit as much as transfer Arnold Ebiketie did in his Penn State debut a year ago. Even better for Penn State fans, Robinson, listed at 6-3 and 242 pounds, has 2 more years of eligibility left after this season, having transferred from Maryland after his true freshman season. A 5-star recruit in the 2021 class, he played in all 13 games for the Terps, starting once.
If you’re a Lions fan enamored with sacks and gaudy tackle totals, this game was not for you. But don’t let the number-crunchers kill your buzz. Penn State played solid defense in Manny Diaz’s debut as coordinator. He brought the blitzes, as promised, and well-timed ones too — the 2 sacks coming in crunch time, as mentioned.
Purdue’s offense scored 24 points, and none in the final 16:11 of the game. O’Connell, a 71.8% passer last year, connected on only 50% Thursday night in front of a jam-packed home crowd at Ross-Ade Stadium. He had 30 incompletions — 30 plays on which no tackle was available.
O’Connell got his passing yards, 365 of them, but threw for only 1 touchdown. While sacked only twice and hurried only once officially, he wasn’t exactly eating Duane Purvis burgers and drinking Scooby Snacks in the pocket. Known for getting the ball out quickly, he played true to form. Robinson and several other Nittany Lions made sure of that.
Isaac, back after missing all of last season with an injury, didn’t have much impact. Overall, though, the front 4 did more than the stat sheet will reveal. In future games — Saturday’s home opener vs. Ohio, for instance — expect them to make more noise.
Joey Porter, secondary prove themselves
If you think O’Connell had a strong game, you haven’t watched enough Purdue football. He had 2 games last year with more than 530 passing yards. Thursday’s performance was below average for him. (He averaged 370.7 yards over his final 9 games last year.) He completed only 7 of his final 21 attempts.
Joey Porter led the way for the secondary, posting a team-high 8 tackles along with tying a record, according to Pro Football Focus, with 6 forced incompletions.
Joey Porter Jr. had SIX forced incompletions last night against Purdue.
Tied for the most in a game by a Power Five CB since PFF began charting College Football in 2014 🐾 pic.twitter.com/K5P4Kpcl4S
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 2, 2022
Dixon, Daequan Hardy and Keaton Ellis all had key pass-breakups down the stretch, too.
O’Connell’s longest connection of the night went for only 30 yards, to new favorite receiver Charlie Jones. Penn State didn’t let much of anything come easy against the guy who still looks like the 2nd-best quarterback in the Big Ten.
Tough against the run, too
The Boilermakers don’t run much, having finished last in the B1G in rushing yards per game 3 years in a row. Still, the Lions held them to 61 yards on 22 carries, or only 2.8 per attempt. Purdue’s long run went for 9 yards. All told, Purdue’s run game remained more inept than Penn State’s, and the defense deserves credit for making sure that was the case.
Though no individual players posted monster tackling stats, 23 Nittany Lions made at least 1 stop. As Diaz and head coach James Franklin have said, the staff is determined to develop depth. True freshmen Dani Dennis-Sutton, Zane Durant and Abdul Carter saw action (Carter very briefly because of a targeting call), as did 2 or 3 others who didn’t dent the stat sheet.
Diaz had a solid debut, and Penn State’s strengths and weaknesses played out as expected. Yes, sacks and greater pressure from the line would be welcome. And the top 2 middle linebackers will have to combine for more than 4 tackles (Tyler Elsdon 3, Kobe King 1) to win most games.
But Purdue isn’t most games.
One game in, Diaz has a foundation he can build upon and lots of good options at most positions. Let’s wait a few more games before worrying too much about the numbers.