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Penn State must focus on Ball State, and not look back (Wisconsin) or ahead (Auburn)

The Nittany Lions' upcoming "White Out" game against Auburn is eagerly anticipated, but coach James Franklin is making sure his team concentrates on the Cardinals.

Penn State head coach James Franklin reacts to a blocked field goal during the first half   against Wisconsin.
Penn State head coach James Franklin reacts to a blocked field goal during the first half against Wisconsin.Read moreMorry Gash / AP

Ball State at No. 11 Penn State

Saturday at 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College

Line: Penn State by 22

Records: Ball State, 1-0; Penn State, 1-0

TV/Radio: Fox Sports 1; WCAU-AM (1210)

Coaches: Ball State, Mike Neu (sixth season, 23-34); Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 61-28)

Series: This is the first meeting.

Penn State fans have been feeling pretty good this week. Their team won a tough game at a difficult place last Saturday against Wisconsin. The next opponent is Ball State from the Mid-American Conference, and the Nittany Lions are 27-3 all-time against MAC opponents.

In other words, the timing for a trap game couldn’t be better.

For the Lions, the euphoric experience of defeating a ranked team on the road may be something hard to let go. Their Beaver Stadium opener before more than 100,000 has been billed as a “Family Reunion” celebration after the pandemic limited last year’s crowds to parents and family. The much-anticipated “Whiteout” follows next weekend against No. 25 Auburn.

Penn State head coach James Franklin knows about trap games. He knows the importance of focusing on one game, the next game, and maintaining consistency in his approach.

“I believe teams play inconsistent because they either look forward, look back, get caught up in praise, get caught up in criticism, don’t have the correct amount of respect for the opponent or the process,” he said Tuesday. “Our routine and our process is really important to me. That’s why we won’t talk about anything else but the game at hand.”

Warning: The Cardinals returned 23 starters (counting special teams) from the team that won the MAC championship for the first time since 1996, and defeated San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. Their roster includes 16 “super seniors,” players who accepted the extra year allowed by the NCAA because of the pandemic.

Here’s what to look for:

Revving up the offense sooner: The Nittany Lions needed an entire half to finally get settled on offense. Once they did, however, things rolled rather smoothly, with 254 total yards in the second half after a puny 43-yard output in the first. Sean Clifford passed for 204 yards, including completions of 52, 49 and 42 yards, and the running game showed signs of life behind junior Noah Cain, who ripped off a 34-yard dash. The Ball State defense allowed five completions of 20 or more yards last week in its win over Western Illinois, and 367 yards in all through the air. Look for Clifford to keep going deep again.

Defensive versatility: Redshirt senior linebacker Ellis Brooks was having the game of his life, tying his career high of 11 tackles last week, but his ejection on a targeting call in the fourth quarter means he will have to sit out the first half Saturday. That gives senior Jesse Luketa, who played linebacker and defensive end last week, a chance for steady time at the position he played much during his previous three seasons. Luketa was in on five tackles against Wisconsin but blew up his share of plays with his penetration. He isn’t Penn State’s only two-position player on defense – redshirt senior Jonathan Sutherland swung between safety and outside linebacker and contributed seven tackles.

Who’s the kicker? Jordan Stout beat out senior starter Jake Pinegar as the placekicker in training camp. However, while Stout had success with his punting (53.9 yards per punt, third in the nation) and his kickoffs, he didn’t do as well with a holder, shanking a 23-yard field goal attempt and clanging an extra point try off the left upright. Franklin admitted Tuesday that Stout “has a lot on his plate” in holding three jobs but he liked the fact Stout did not dwell on his poor kicks. In the previous two years, Stout would be called upon for longer field goals while Pinegar’s limit was usually around 45 yards. Would Franklin try that method again?

The opponent

Old man, look at my life: Given its 16 super seniors, which Franklin said was the fourth-most of any FBS roster, Ball State is a truly veteran team. The Cardinals have five players who started an early-season 2018 game at Notre Dame before a crowd of more than 77,000, and will start Saturday at Penn State, including 24-year-old linebacker Jaylin Thomas and 23-year-old offensive lineman Kaleb Slavin. Quarterback Drew Plitt, 23, is in his sixth year in the program. It’s hard to predict if all that experience will help when the noise gets cranked up at Beaver Stadium, but the Cardinals won’t be intimidated.

Giving Hall the ball: Fifth-year senior wide receiver Justin Hall is the Cardinals’ biggest threat on offense and showed why in the season opener, catching touchdown throws of 49 and 48 yards from Plitt. Hall finished fourth in FBS last season in all-purpose yards at 213 per game, and averaged 24.6 yards on kickoff returns. He is the nation’s leader in career receptions (265) among active players and has caught at least one pass in all 44 collegiate games in which he’s played. Hall also is dangerous on jet sweeps, having rushed for 231 yards last season.

Missing a cog: The Cardinals’ strong linebacking corps could be without a key performer Saturday. Redshirt senior Brandon Martin, last year’s MAC co-defensive player of the year and the nation’s No. 8 tackler, suffered an undisclosed injury in the fourth quarter of last week’s game and head coach Mike Neu said he is “out for right now,” not disclosing whether Martin will play at Penn State.

Keys to the Game

Finding more receivers: Clifford did not complete a pass to a tight end at Wisconsin, and didn’t throw at all to any wide receiver not named Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington or DeAndre Lambert-Smith. Perhaps the offensive line, which got off to a shaky start last week, can give him more time in the pocket. The running game, which was relatively nonexistent (50 yards was tied for the seventh-lowest rushing output in program history), needs to establish itself and get a better performance from sophomore Keyvone Lee, who lost yards on two carries trying to bounce a straight-ahead run to the outside.

Secondary test: One week after hounding Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, who had only six of his 22 completions go for 10 yards or more, the secondary should receive a stiffer test from Plitt (6,708 career pass yards, 52 touchdowns). Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie gave the Lions’ pass rush a spark last week and considering that Ball State may pay more attention to him than the Badgers did, the rest of the line will need to step up.

Beaver Stadium: A win Saturday for the Nittany Lions will be their 300th at Beaver Stadium in this, their 62nd season of competition there. It’ll be the first time that Penn State’s first- and second-year players have played in front of 100,000, though most of them saw about that many when they came to Happy Valley on a recruiting trip. It’s sure to be an electric day for many.