Even though Purdue is a fashionable pick for a run at the Big Ten West this season, the Boilermakers will start the season an an underdog.

Purdue is a 3.5-point dog to Penn State on Thursday night in Ross-Ade Stadium, meaning it’ll have to score an upset, even if it’s a mild one, to get the season started on a strong note. The Boilermakers can get it done, although a lot will need to go right for them to score the W.

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Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest reasons Purdue will upset Penn State late Thursday night:

Purdue will protect

Purdue anticipates that new Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will have the Nittany Lions playing an even more aggressive style, and that says a lot, considering PSU has already had one of the best units in the Big Ten.

Last season, the Nittany Lions had 27 sacks in 13 games, a rate that ranked Penn State in the middle of the league (8th), but former DC Brent Pry was happy to let his defense bend, bend, bend but not break. Diaz, the former head coach at Miami (Fla.), is going to bring the heat.

But Purdue can respond. The Boilermakers might have their most talented — certainly it’s the deepest — offensive line in the Jeff Brohm Era, and it has a veteran tight end and veteran running back who are very good pass blockers. They can help keep Aidan O’Connell, who generally is adept at avoiding pressure in the pocket and getting the football out on time, on his feet.

If so, Purdue’s big-play offense can hit on big plays.

This is the matchup of the game. In Penn State’s blowout win vs. Purdue in ’19 — O’Connell happened to make his debut in the game — the Nittany Lions racked up 10 sacks. The Boilermakers, however, will fare much better this time around.

Purdue has AOC

In a battle of veteran quarterbacks — 6th-year seniors O’Connell and Sean Clifford — the edge goes to the Boilermakers.

O’Connell, a former walk-on, turned himself into one of the best in the Big Ten last season, when he rallied Purdue to victories in 5 of its last 6 games. Purdue enters Thursday’s game with a 3-game winning streak. O’Connell seems as dialed in as he’s ever been, winning the constant praise of his head coach and position coach, Brian Brohm, throughout camp, with the coaches calling him poised, locked in and ready to lead.

And O’Connell has had a penchant for big moments, having rallied Purdue to victories in 5 games during his career, and scoring victories against No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Michigan State last season. He doesn’t often get rattled — if he does, he doesn’t show it — and will embrace the spotlight. O’Connell will have to avoid PSU pressure and cornerback Ji’Ayir Brown, who tied for the nation’s lead in interceptions last year.

But don’t look past the edge O’Connell gives Purdue, not only Thursday night but all season long.

Solid ATS

As an underdog, Purdue isn’t just beating the spread lately, it’s winning games.

In the second half of last season, the Boilermakers were the ‘dog in 4 games: At Nebraska (plus 7.5), home vs. Michigan State (plus 2.5), at Ohio State (plus 19) and vs. Tennessee in the Music City Bowl (plus 7.5). Purdue won 3, beating Nebraska by 5, Michigan State by 11 and Tennessee by 3.

In Brohm’s 5 seasons as the head coach, Purdue is 19-8 against the spread as an underdog with 12 outright wins.

Purdue is being undervalued. Even though it enters this season having won 9 games last season, playing against a PSU team that’s 11-11 the last 2 seasons, the Nittany Lions are a slight favorite. Chances are Purdue doesn’t care much about the betting lines, as it didn’t last year. The Boilermakers embrace it, perhaps because of their history, perhaps because they have a former walk-on quarterback.

Defense ready for prime time

The Boilermakers don’t have a star on their defensive front — at least as of right now — but what they do have is a deeply talented bunch.

D-line coach Mark Hagen thinks Purdue can go as many as 3 deep across its 4-man front, and while that might be a stretch, it’s telling of where the Boilermakers confidence lies. The Boilermakers think they can compete at the line of scrimmage on defense, a trait they’ve not always had.

Purdue can win the matchup vs. Penn State. Shockingly, the Nittany Lions were one of the worst rushing offenses in the Big Ten last season, 13th at 107.8 yards per game (ahead of only Purdue). If the Boilermakers can make PSU one dimensional on Thursday night, forcing Clifford into more-difficult-than-desired situations, it could give Purdue an edge.

Special teams special

Purdue finally feels good about its special teams.

And perhaps in what should be a close game, that’ll be a difference.

The biggest upgrade for the Boilermakers is the addition of punt returner Charlie Jones, the reigning Big Ten Returner of the Year. It’s been years since Purdue had a difference-maker in the return game, as Purdue — lately — has chosen to be safe. But it won’t this year. Brohm will let Jones loose, trying to see if Purdue can pick up yardage, or scores, on returns.

Add in veteran kicker Mitchell Fineran, who hit 24 field goals last season, including the game-winner in overtime vs. the Volunteers, and Purdue might have the edge on a lot of teams, including a Penn State bunch that must replace kicker/punter Jordan Stout and punter-returner (and star WR/first-round NFL Draft pick) Jahan Dotson.