Penn State’s offensive formations were presented to the Ball State defense at a rapid pace – three tight ends, sometimes on the same side of the field; two running backs in the backfield, the quarterback under center, four and five wide receivers.
The dizzying array of sets dialed up by first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich got the job done: 44 points, 493 yards of total offense, 32 first downs, more than 34 minutes time of possession and – most importantly in the eyes of head coach James Franklin – zero turnovers.
“There was a lot of stuff going on,” quarterback Sean Clifford said after the game. “That’s what coach Yurcich is all about. You’re not going to see the same plays over and over.”
It remains to be seen how that affects the Lions’ opponent Saturday night when No. 22 Auburn comes calling at Beaver Stadium to experience the White Out. It’s certain to be far different than the Tigers’ first two games against Akron and Alabama State where they outscored their opponents 116-10 and allowed an average of 182 total yards.
Clifford has seen and learned much from different offenses during his five seasons in the program; Yurcich is his fourth offensive coordinator. On the outside, the revamped up-tempo offense may look like it could be too complicated for even someone like Clifford who prides himself on all the prep work he does to get ready for a game, including endless film study.
Instead, he’s ready for whatever new wrinkle Yurcich presents to him, and that his week-to-week preparation process remains the same.
“From a game prep, I feel like I’m prepping the maximum amount of time regardless of how hard an offense is,” he said Wednesday in a Zoom call with reporters. “I think that I put in enough time and effort throughout the days leading up to the game where nothing’s going to confuse me. I’m going to make sure that I’m 100% into our game plan and what they’re doing.”
With Ball State’s defense guarding against the deep pass, the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions (2-0) didn’t have a completion longer than 25 yards. Clifford was efficient, spreading the ball around to 10 different receivers and passing for 230 yards with no turnovers.
After a season where he committed 12 turnovers (nine interceptions, three lost fumbles) in nine games, Clifford has done a fine job securing the ball, a point of emphasis throughout the offseason.
“It’s really undervalued how big it is to talk about the ball being the program and securing it and just not putting it in harm’s way or at risk that maybe isn’t worth taking,” he said. “It’s communication and just working on it every day and making sure that if you do turn the ball over in practice, there’s a very specific reason and it wasn’t a dumb reason.”
Through two games, Clifford has been in the middle of the Big Ten pack in passing efficiency (seventh) and completion percentage (eighth, 62.9) but ranks fourth in total offense (274.0 yards per game) and fifth in average passing yards (238.5).
Against ranked teams, Clifford sports a 5-3 record, the latest matchup being a significant win almost two weeks ago at Wisconsin where, after a slow start, he passed for 247 yards and a touchdown. It was his third game of more than 200 passing yards against a ranked opponent, but the first time in a victory.
He said this week that being efficient with the football is the “biggest growth area I’ve had so far” and that his progress from Week 1 to Week 2 “was very substantial along with the offense as well, so we’re looking forward to build on that in Week 3.”
And he hopes those areas of growth and improvement will help against Auburn.
“It’s playing within myself,” he said, “but still making the big plays, converting on the explosives (plays) and just making sure I’m playing the way that I know I’m capable of playing. Those are the biggest things for me. Nothing from Ball State is going to help me in this game. Nothing from Wisconsin is going to help me. The experiences and seeing different things will help.”