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Penn State defense comes up big in fourth quarter, leads 28-20 win over Auburn

The Nittany Lions' defense turned Auburn away three times in the fourth quarter, once at the Penn State 2 with 3:08 to play. Sean Clifford passed for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

Penn State's Tyler Warren (44) dives over Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe (0) to score a third-quarter touchdown in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept.18, 2021.
Penn State's Tyler Warren (44) dives over Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe (0) to score a third-quarter touchdown in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept.18, 2021.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The annual Penn State White Out game — No. 10 Penn State versus No. 22 Auburn, Big Ten versus SEC — came as advertised, with big plays and strong defensive stands as a crowd of 109,958 yelled itself hoarse.

But it was the Nittany Lions’ defense that took control late against the relentless Tigers running attack. The group came up with a fourth-down stop at the Lions’ 2-yard line with 3 minutes, 8 seconds to play, then shut the door on Auburn’s final drive and came away with a 28-20 victory to improve to 3-0 on the season.

The game had three lead changes in the first half alone, with the Nittany Lions getting the last touchdown on Sean Clifford’s 2-yard pass to tight end Brenton Strange for a 14-10 lead at halftime.

Penn State took advantage of an Auburn fumble on the first scrimmage play of the second half to go up 21-10, a lead the Tigers (2-1) cut to 21-20 on Anders Carlson’s 43-yard field goal on the opening play of the fourth quarter.

The Nittany Lions scored their final TD on Noah Cain’s 3-yard run with 10:48 to play and pretty much turned the game over to the defense.

Credit to the defense

The Penn State defense had its share of issues stopping Auburn’s rushing attack, which gained 182 yards, led by Tank Bigsby’s 102 yards in 23 carries and one touchdown.

But the unit stopped the Tigers’ last three drives in the fourth quarter without yielding a point. After Auburn stalled out at the 2 with 3:08 to play, it got the ball back at its 38 with 38 seconds and no timeout remaining.

The Tigers did get the ball down to the Penn State 26 with 3 seconds left, but safety Jaquan Brisker broke up Bo Nix’s final pass and the game ended. Nix went 21-of-37 for 184 yards.

Clifford’s big test

Clifford knows the big spotlight is on him, that some people like his determination and his grit, and others wonder if he’s the guy who can win against high-profile opponents.

The fifth-year senior played well in the Nittany Lions’ win, completing 28 of 32 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns, leading an offense that gained 391 total yards. His longest gain, a 40-yard catch and run by Strange, set up a Cain’s 3-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. He had three other completions of more than 20 yards.

Perhaps the key pass he did not complete was a fly pattern to Jahan Dotson with the ball on the Penn State 1. Dotson drew a pass interference penalty against Auburn’s Nehemiah Pritchett with the Lions trying to run out the clock, and the new set of downs made it almost impossible for the Tigers to rally for the tying points.

Dotson’s the man

The Nittany Lions’ game plan was to get the football in Dotson’s hands early and often. When offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich realized that Auburn’s Roger McCreary was a first-class cornerback, he tried to find different ways for the senior wide receiver to make an impact.

The best example of that came on the Lions’ second scoring drive, a 91-yard, 14-play drive over almost seven minutes. Dotson caught four passes for 39 yards, including a leaping 22-yard grab that will make all the highlight shows, and in a surprise move, took a backward pass from Clifford and chucked a 22-yard pass to tight end Tyler Warren for 22.

Dotson finished with 10 catches for 78 yards and the touchdown.

At the half, Dotson had seven catches for 58 yards and a touchdown — a 4-yard reception when he ran parallel along the back line of the end zone and kept going until Clifford found him.

Yurcich trickeration

Yurcich displayed his usual plethora of formations and personnel groupings, calling 33 runs and 33 passes.

Besides the pass by Dotson, perhaps the most entertaining of the plays, at least to Lions fans, was splitting Clifford to the right and putting Warren, a 6-foot-6, 252-pound tight end, in the shotgun. Warren took the snap, headed up the middle and vaulted over the pile for a 2-yard touchdown.

But some plays didn’t work. On third-and-1 and Penn State needing to run some clock in the fourth quarter, the short flip from Clifford to Dotson lost 5 yards, forcing Penn State to punt.

Counting to four

The SEC officiating crew whiffed on the down count on the Lions’ first drive of the second quarter.

With a first down at the Penn State 34, Clifford threw a deep pass that landed at least 20 yards past the nearest receiver, who obviously cut his route short. Still, the officials called Clifford for intentional grounding, which includes a loss of down.

On second down, Clifford hit Dotson for 5 yards, bringing up third-and-11. But after a meeting among three officials, the referee declared it to be fourth down.

Lions coach James Franklin discussed the lost down with an official during a timeout prior to the Tigers’ next possession, but the call stood.