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Penn State’s 3-0 start feels different from similar starts in the James Franklin era

The Nittany Lions reached 3-0 for the fifth time under Franklin with a 28-20 win over Auburn in the Beaver Stadium White Out. For the first time, they've defeated two ranked teams to get to that point

Penn State linebackers Brandon Smith (12) and Ellis Brooks (13) celebrate a stop against Auburn during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Penn State linebackers Brandon Smith (12) and Ellis Brooks (13) celebrate a stop against Auburn during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State has begun a football season with three straight wins before; in fact, it has done so four previous times in the James Franklin era.

This season, however, has an entirely different feel. For the first time since Franklin took over the reins of the program in 2014, the Nittany Lions have defeated two ranked teams in the first three games, the latest being Saturday night’s 28-20 victory over Auburn before a Beaver Stadium White Out crowd of 109,958.

As a result, the Lions moved up to No. 6 in AP poll and No. 8 in the USA Today poll. They had been 10th and 12th, respectively.

In their wins, in an unfriendly environment at Wisconsin and before their screaming white-clad fans versus the Tigers, the Lions exhibited a strong defense that kept their opponent out of the end zone in the fourth quarter and an offense that made just enough big plays without making crucial mistakes.

Franklin said he is coaching “a tough-minded football team.

“Going on the road at Wisconsin, which is a tough place to play, we found a way to gut out a win there and we were able to do that again tonight against a good football team,” he said late Saturday night. “I think we have found ways to win different ways week one, week two, week three. Obviously being tested early in the season like this, I think is going to be good and helpful. And we’re just going to have to build on it from there. But I’m pleased with where our football team is right now.”

The Nittany Lions’ tough-mindedness can be traced back to the winter when their players vowed not to go through another terrible season like the 4-5 mark they compiled in 2020. Defensive end/linebacker Jesse Luketa said they used the disappointment as fuel.

“We owned it – the good, the bad, the ugly,” he said. “We’ve got that chip on our shoulder. We go into work day-in and day-out. We keep that same mentality and remember everything.

“I’ve learned a lot about the people I’m lining up with, their character. I can see it by the way they prepare and how detail-oriented they are in the meeting rooms and how it transitions to the field. We’re hungry. When we say we have each other’s backs, I know when I line up with 10 other guys, they’re going to know their assignment and do their assignment.”

It was a career night for quarterback Sean Clifford in terms of accuracy, completing 28 of 32 passes (a career-best 87.5%) for 280 yards and touchdown passes to Jahan Dotson and Brenton Strange.

“It starts with the offseason,” Clifford said. “It was a crazy offseason. We grinded harder than we ever have since I’ve been here. We had something to prove. Last year wasn’t us, everybody knew that. Even if you didn’t, I’m hoping that we’re proving it now.”

The Lions turned back three Auburn drives in the fourth quarter, stopping the Tigers’ longest possession of the period on the Penn State 2-yard line when safety Jaquan Brisker broke up a pass in the end zone with 3 minutes, 8 seconds to play. Brisker performed the same duty on the final play of the game from the Lions’ 26.

Penn State welcomes Villanova to Happy Valley on Saturday before a home game against Indiana and a trip to Iowa wrap up its first half of its season. Franklin said nothing in his team’s routine will change.

“The good thing is, we’re going to go in on Sunday and we’re going to coach the heck out of this, all this film and the corrections,” he said. “If your processes are right, it shouldn’t matter what the result was. There’s a lot of things that we can get cleaned up and should get cleaned up, and good football teams do that while they’re winning. They don’t need a setback to do it.”

SEC admits down count error

The SEC office admitted after the game that its officiating crew, led by referee James Carter, took a play away from the Nittany Lions, giving them only three downs on their initial possession of the second quarter.

“At 11:45 in the second quarter, Penn State throws an incomplete pass that was judged to be intentional grounding,” the conference said in a statement. “The crew’s enforcement of the penalty erroneously set the down to third; the correct down should have been second. The replay booth was consulted to confirm the down prior to the punt. The replay booth had the down as fourth down as well.

“The error was discovered during the media timeout that followed the punt and by rule, it could not be corrected at that time.”

Franklin said he spoke with all the officials about the mistakes but to no avail.

“They all agreed on the call and so did the replay,” he said. “And I kept bringing them over and saying it’s not accurate. I don’t know what else I can tell you, but they all concurred with the officials. They got the headset, they talked to each other, they all agreed. They ran it by replay, they agreed as well. I don’t know what else I can do or what else I can say.”