No. 22 Auburn at No. 10 Penn State
Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College
Line: Penn State by 5½.
Records: Auburn, 2-0; Penn State, 2-0.
TV/Radio: 6ABC; WCAU-AM (1210)
Coaches: Auburn, Bryan Harsin (first season, 2-0); Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 62-28).
Series: Tied 1-1. This is the first regular-season meeting between the two teams.
For only the third time in program history, and the first time since 1931, Auburn will be playing a Big Ten opponent. And before the Tigers even set foot in Beaver Stadium for the Nittany Lions’ White Out, head coach Bryan Harsin is worried.
Yes, the Tigers are taking a huge step up in weight class after barely breaking a sweat in defeating Akron and Alabama State at home by a combined 122-10. But the concern may be that Harsin, who arrived last December as Auburn’s new head coach after seven seasons at Boise State, is taking his team on the road for the first time.
“The biggest thing is just the distractions that come with playing on the road, playing in a game like we’re going to play,” Harsin said at his weekly Zoom meeting with reporters. “I think there’s a lot of positive things around the game that we can all enjoy and know that it’s a part of having a great challenge on Saturday. But it comes down to the maturity of our team, the leadership of our team and our coaches will continue to talk to our players about it.
“People come out of nowhere when all of a sudden you’re going to play in a game on the road against Penn State. Guys just have to be mature enough not to listen on all that, stayed focused on the things we’ve been doing that got us to where we are right now and be better at it this week. That’s really what it comes down to.”
What to expect
The field generals. Two veteran quarterbacks, Penn State’s Sean Clifford and Auburn’s Bo Nix, will be at the controls. Each man has gone over the 5,000-yard career passing mark in the early going, yet their respective fan bases aren’t always in love with them. Clifford followed a strong 2019 season with a dismal 2020, turning the ball over 12 times in nine games. As for Nix, in 11 career road starts he has compiled a 4-7 record with 12 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and a 54.4% completion rate. Of course, Nix’s challenge on this night will be to communicate with his offense while more than 107,000 folks go berserk. Remember, the fan noise made Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson call a timeout before the Wolverines could run their first play of the game in 2019.
What’s Auburn got? The question for James Franklin and his Penn State coaching staff has been trying to find enough film of what their opponent might do. The Tigers haven’t had to show much the past two weeks, but they did reveal a strong rushing attack that rolled up 678 yards. Franklin said he might watch footage of the previous stops of Harsin (Boise State), offensive coordinator Mike Bobo (Colorado State, South Carolina), and defensive coordinator Derek Mason (Franklin’s successor at Vanderbilt). “When you get into a game and it’s a blowout early, those late-game reps are not as important in your breakdown,” Franklin said.
The other guys
Tiger speed. Jarquez Hunter, a freshman from Philadelphia (Mississippi, that is), dashed 94 yards for a touchdown in his second career game, a feat not accomplished by Bo Jackson, James Brooks, Joe Cribbs or any other great Auburn running back. Hunter has rushed for 257 yards and has gained 15.1 yards per carry. Sophomore Tank Bigsby has accounted for 241 yards on the ground and a 10.0-yard average. The Tigers’ top receivers are seniors Shedrick Jackson (seven catches, 90 yards) and Demetris Robertson (six catches, 89 yards, two touchdowns).
Experienced defenders. Strong seniors lead the Auburn defense. Linebacker Zakoby McClain had 113 tackles last season, third in the SEC, and tops the 2021 team with 17. Cornerback Roger McCreary had a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown last week. Edge rusher T.D. Moultry and 314-pound defensive tackle Marquis Burks have combined for 4½ of Auburn’s nine sacks.
Keys to the game
Keeping Clifford upright. Franklin again commented during the week that his quarterback is taking too many hits. Clifford was sacked three times against Ball State, raising his season total to five, and ran the ball or scrambled on eight other occasions, including a 43-yard scamper that turned out to be the longest play of the game. The Lions’ offensive line must take a step up against a Tigers defense that will have Clifford in its sights.
Turnovers: The two quarterbacks will try to maintain their streak of passes without an interception, 137 for Nix going back to last year’s Alabama game, 115 for Clifford dating to last year’s eighth game against Rutgers. The Nittany Lions are plus-5 in turnover margin while the Tigers have two takeaways and one lost fumble (plus-1). Given the strength of both defenses, long scoring drives could be a rare commodity, so takeaways are crucial.
The environment: The 13th full-stadium White Out will be the first against a team other than Ohio State or Michigan since Alabama’s 27-11 victory in 2011. It doesn’t matter that this is a nonconference opponent; the fact that another SEC team provides the opposition should have the members of Nittany Nation in full voice. The Lions are only 6-6 in White Outs and would love to get that record above .500 and continue the momentum from their first two games.