Auburn’s preseason is over.
The Tigers will play one of the toughest schedules in 2021. However, to date, they’ve arguably played the easiest. Akron is possibly the worst FBS football team in America while Alabama State isn’t exactly a FCS heavy weight. Auburn though handled business like they needed to blowing out those 2 programs by a combined score of 122-10.
Now things get real. The Penn State Nittany Lions opened the season by surviving a tough road contest in Madison, WI. Despite the Badges out gaining the Lions, possessing the ball for nearly 30 minutes longer and racking up more than twice as many first downs, James Franklin’s crew left Camp Randall with the W. Red zone turnovers doomed Wisconsin while a gritty performance from Clifford and crew along with an impressive late goal line stand allowed PSU to notch a massive week 1 victory.
Following that road trip, Penn State returned home to take on a quality MAC team in Ball State. They jumped on the Cardinals early and cruised to a decisive victory setting up a ranked showdown with the Tigers. Gameday will be in town and Happy Valley is expected to be cloaked in white with Saturday’s contest being tabbed the annual “Whiteout” where Penn State holds a terrifying record of 8-8.
Like Auburn, Penn State’s strength is its defense. SP+ ranks this unit #4 in the nation and they’ve been impressive to watch so far this fall. It starts with that ferocious front 7 which gave up some yards and first downs to the Badgers but never surrendered the big blow and consistently harassed Badger QB Graham Mertz. What makes this group especially dangerous is that there isn’t a specific player you can pick to either neutralize or avoid as a way of gaining yards. Instead, PSU’s defense is a well coached bunch that sports decent depth and do a great job rallying to the football.
If there is one player to highlight on the defensive line it’s Temple transfer Arnold Ebeketie. He jumped out quickly when watching that week 1 contest. His stats aren’t super gaudy (3 TFL, 1 sack) but he’s been a consistent presence in opponent’s backfields early this season. Auburn tackles Austin Troxell and Brodarious Hamm will get their first real test of the season in terms of pass protection improvements. There are much scarier edge rushers in Auburn’s future so it’s imperative those two hold up well this weekend.
The 2nd level of this defense is ultra aggressive and excel at shooting gaps in the run game. Outside linebackers Brandon Smith and Curtis Jacobs are excellent athletes who can play all over the field while Ellis Brooks is the exact type of middle linebacker you’d expect to see on a Big 10 squad. Jesse Luketa is a versatile weapon who will see some time at defensive end and at middle linebacker. He had a pick 6 against the Cardinals.
The backend of Penn State’s defense has yet to be seriously tested but it’s a group coaches and fans are high on. They return two super senior safeties including All-American Jonathan Brisker who had the game sealing pick against the Badgers. He’s been battling injuries all season so it’s unlikely he’s at 100% this weekend but as Wisconsin learned the hard way, he’s still very much a threat to make big plays.
Both cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr. are highly regarded though neither have really been challenged so far this season. I have questions about their speed so don’t be surprised if the Tigers try to take some shots early down the field in hopes of getting behind the Lions for some early momentum. Regardless, this bunch has been incredibly disruptive with the Penn State secondary having picked off 3 passes through the first 2 games.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry is entering his 8th season with the Nittany Lions. He took over as DC in 2016. Under his guidance, Penn State has finished inside the top 25 per SP+ all five seasons and inside the top 15 the last 4.
He runs a 4-3 scheme that keeps things simple in terms of alignments and coverages allowing his guys to play fast. I see a lot of similarities to former Auburn DC Kevin Steele with regards to not necessarily trying to throw a wide array of blitzes or funky coverages to confuse opponents but instead trusting his talent to execute at a high level each snap. With that said, he’s definitely not afraid to bring pressure and make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Against Wisconsin, he brought 5 man pressures throughout the day and those big farm boys struggled to consistently pick them up resulting in a really bad day for Mertz. In recent seasons, Auburn’s offensive line has also struggled consistently picking up these types of blitzes so it’s something I am definitely keeping an eye on early Saturday night.
Penn State will run a lot of 1 high looks allowing their safeties to get involved in the run game. Brisker in particular is someone to watch as he excels coming downhill to fill run lanes. He reminds me a lot of current New York Jet and former Auburn Tiger Jamien Sherwood.
Offensively, Penn State is under new management. James Franklin elected to make an aggressive move this off-season replacing Kirk Ciarrocca (remember that Minnesota team?) with Mike Yurcich. I call it aggressive because Ciarrocca was only given one year, a year that ruined opportunities for new coaches to implement their schemes due to COVID restrictions, before being pushed out. But you’d be hard pressed to find another OC right now with a stronger track record in college football than Yurcich.
Yurcich has a nice track record, with time spent at Oklahoma State and Ohio State, before arriving at Penn State. His offenses has averaged 6.48 yards per play over his 15 years as coordinator. That’s the best among active coordinators since 2013. The hallmark of a Yurcich offense is the big play. Yurcich’s offenses have averaged 14 yards per completion, also first among coordinators since 2013.
He cut his teeth as a playcaller at D2 Shippensburg where they put up some gaudy offensive numbers. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy took notice and brought Yurcich to Stillwater. The gamble paid off as the Cowboys absolutely lit up the Big 12 during his 6 years before Ohio State hired him away. He joined Tom Herman in Austin, TX last season where he quickly found himself back on the job market following the coaching change. Franklin didn’t hesitate and now Penn State fans are hoping to see the explosive Joe Moorehead offenses of old return to Happy Valley.
Like Auburn, the Nittany Lions return a veteran quarterback who is playing under his 3rd offensive coordinator. Also like Auburn, there are questions over how much you can trust him. Sean Clifford is a slightly more accurate, slightly less athletic Bo Nix, prone to wild swings during a game or season. One snap he’ll look like someone that can lead your program to championships and then the next he’s doing stuff like this.
To Clifford’s credit, he’s gotten off to a solid start in 2021. His 7.7 yards per attempt won’t wow anyone but he hasn’t turned the ball over and has done an excellent job managing this new offense. He didn’t have a great start against Wisconsin but over his last 3 halves of football has looked much improved.
But like Bo, it won’t be Clifford’s job to go win this game. The man Penn State relies on to generate big plays is Jahan Dotson, one of the most explosive playmakers in college football. He got behind Wisconsin’s defense a couple of times that helped lead to the winning points for the Nittany Lions. Roger McCreary came back to improve his draft stock. This is the type of matchup that NFL scouts are going to spend a tremendous time breaking down.
His battery mate Parker Washington isn’t a slouch either and does an excellent job operating in the short game. He and Dotson have combined for 20 catches, 271 yards and 2 touchdowns through the first couple of games in 2021. You can’t over play Dotson because if you do Washington will burn you.
Penn State’s ground game is off to a slow start but they have full backfield lead by former Auburn target Noah Cain. Cain missed 2020 with an injury but is back to lead the Nittany Lion rushing attack in 2021. So far he’s only averaging 4.2 yards a carry including a pedestrian 20 carries for a nice 69 yards against Ball State. But he’s a physical back that seems to be working on regaining his legs after missing action all last season.
Sean Clifford is actually number 2 for Penn State in terms of rushing attempts but Keyvone Lee is the #2 back who provides some pop to that backfield. I thought looking back at 2020 he was the best weapon out of the backfield. Former 4-star Devyn Ford should also see some action.
Truthfully, Yurcich is more of an Air Raid guy and leaned heavily on the passing attack against the Badgers. I expect him to test the interior of Auburn’s defense early but it wouldn’t surprise me if Clifford had 35+ passing attempts this weekend. A big reason being the struggles this offensive line has had opening holes in the run game though their pass protection hasn’t been great either. Former Auburn commit Eric Wilson has helped stabilize some things in the interior but this is still a unit with plenty of question marks as AuburnObserver’s Justin Ferguson noted earlier this week.
Penn State, meanwhile, has an offensive line with pass protection questions of its own that are carrying over from last season. The Nittany Lions allowed 3.11 sacks per game last season, which ranked No. 109 in FBS. So far this season, they’ve allowed five sacks in two games.
According to PFF, Clifford has been pressured on 20 of his 72 dropbacks, and the Nittany Lions are graded as the No. 93 team nationally in pass protection through two weeks. Last season, Clifford had a completion percentage of 38.9% when pressured — lower than the one posted by Auburn’s Bo Nix — and threw two touchdowns to five interceptions on those throws.
Auburn’s pass rush has looked improved so far this season but how much of that is the quality of opponent vs actual improvement? We will find out quickly this Saturday.
Given Derek Mason’s penchant for playing more off coverage to help limit explosive plays through the air don’t be surprised if Clifford dinks and dunks down the field early. Open field tackling will be critical in this game especially when it comes to Auburn’s corners as one missed tackle could surrender 6 points easily to this wide receiver pair.
Also keep an eye on that tight end room. Penn State has recruited that position exceptionally well in recent cycles. Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson are both excellent athletes who could present some interesting matchups for Auburn’s linebackers.
Predicting this game is incredibly difficult. These teams are very similar in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Both lean heavily on their defense to keep themselves in games while the offense hunts for scoring opportunities. The big difference will obviously be that Penn State gets to play this game at home. Bo Nix has yet to prove he can go on the road and be a stabilizing force against top competition regardless of whether or not the fans are all wearing the same colored shirt.
On the flip side, Clifford also hasn’t proven to be an elite trigger man and missed some big play opportunities vs the Badgers. If either quarterback is pressured there’s a very high possibility of dumb turnovers happening. Which team can effectively protect their quarterback and allow him to stay relatively comfortable will have the edge.
Don’t sleep on special teams either. Auburn holds the edge at kicker but Jahan Dotson also sees time as a return man and Penn State’s punter can flip the field in a hurry. In a game where two teams look to be evenly matched it often comes down to a special teams gaffe or big play that proves the difference.
Saturday should be a lot of fun either way. Get ready Auburn fans, we are about to learn what kind of team we have this fall.