Auburn and Penn State tangle in the biggest game of the weekend tomorrow night in Happy Valley, and while we’re still searching for true validation on what the Tigers have accomplished this season, we don’t know much about the Nittany Lions either. Thankfully, the folks over at Black Shoe Diaries have sent an emissary to come over here and fill us in on Penn State.
Penn State rebounded in the best possible way last season after an 0-5 start. Does 2021 feel like the start of something new, or the continuation of the momentum of the 2020 4-game winning streak?
Last season got off to a rough start with the Indiana game and just really spiraled out of control after that, it was shocking to everyone. Like you said, they ended the season with a four game winning streak, which was much needed. So far this season feels like it’s being built on top of that momentum from last season, but not directly a continuation. I think the momentum from the winning streak was big going into the offseason and allowed the program to have a great deal of confidence. Bringing in a new offensive coordinator like Yurcich was also big especially for the offense. That being said, I feel like the win over Wisconsin really started a whole new momentum train per se for the Nittany Lions. Camp Randall is an incredibly hard place to play and to go in there and get that type of win was a big jump start to the season, especially considering how they struggled offensively. So as big as the four-game winning streak was, I think the Wisconsin win served just as big of a momentum builder, if not more.
We all know Mike Yurcich’s reputation from his days with Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, and that he’s worked pretty well with head coaches with an offensive background. With the passing game being his area of expertise, how much of his passing concepts have been implemented during the first couple of games? Is this system one where Sean Clifford can take the next step or is it a multi-year installation?
Great question. I think the offense is still in somewhat basic form, against Wisconsin they really didn’t do anything spectacular, it was all kind of basic. Likewise against Ball State. That being said, it makes sense. Get the fundamentals down before you try to do a bunch of fancy play designs which require the fundamentals to be nearly perfect. Penn State players have told the media multiple times this week that the playbook hasn’t really been opened yet and they still have a ton they’re going to show. We’ll see if they use it to their advantage this week, so I would say that those watching Penn State highlights or replays shouldn’t take too much from the offense outside of their basic play designs. I’m expecting to see a few wrinkles on Saturday.
In regards to Clifford, he’s definitely gained a ton of this offseason and early this season though we’ll see how he sustains that confidence going forward. In terms of his developmental this is in all likelihood his final season in State College. Because of the COVID rules, he still has a year of eligibility left but I’d be shocked if he uses that eligibility, at least with the Nittany Lions. They have a true freshman in Christian Vellieux that they’re extremely high on as well as a high four-star commitment in Drew Allar coming in this next cycle. If he has a good remainder of the season, he’ll likely try the NFL. If he struggles, he’ll either hang up the cleats or try his hand elsewhere. So with Clifford respectively, he kind of needs it to be a next step forward now situation. With regards to the rest of the offense, I think the offense will be good and be able to score against most opponents this season but I will be intrigued to see how the other skill position players develop throughout this season and into next season. I think next years offense for Penn State could be really good, if the coaching staff stays in place as is and there are no surprise players transferring out of the program.
What did Nittany Lion fans take away from the win over Wisconsin? What troubled you and what made you hopeful going forward?
The biggest takeaway was simply that they were able to find a way to win a tough game without playing their best football. The offense was extremely poor to start but looked strong in the second half, which was nice to see and then they followed up with a good performance against Ball State.
But also, another big one was that the Penn State defense held its own and looked tremendous. The defensive line held its own against the best offensive line they’ll probably face this season while the secondary looks every bit the part of a secondary whose likely going to send each of its starters to the NFL. I could go much more in depth but in all it was truly one of the biggest wins of the James Franklin era.
Is James Franklin around for the long haul? There have been rumors linking him to big jobs previously (USC in particular), what’s the fan base’s attitude toward him and toward that talking point?
Yeah, so this is the big question this week. Truth is, I don’t think anyone knows how long Franklin is around for. I do think he loves it at Penn State but if we’re being honest, the chances to win a national championship in today’s college football climate if you’re not Alabama, Clemson, even Ohio State or maybe Georgia right now are extremely difficult unless you get lucky with the perfect storm (I.e, LSU). At Penn State, those chances are not high at the moment. They may never be, it’s hard to say. That being said, with USC in particular it would be a solid fit but I for one don’t think it’s as strong of a job as it’s perception and two, Franklin has a lot going for him right now at PSU. With a win on Saturday, a Big Ten title or playoff berth is a serious discussion and he currently has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country including the best quarterback he’s ever recruited. It would be a weird time to leave especially to go to a place like USC where they’ll have limited patience and where you’ll need to build a new foundation and new culture. There’s a lot of work to be done with the Trojans.
In terms of the fan base, a lot of fans wish he would just shoot down the rumors and understandably so. Like Franklin said, no matter what he says the media will take it however they want and still write whatever they want. Beyond that, most fans just get annoyed by the constant rumors of his name popping up but most of those fans also realize to a point that it is a good thing, as it means Franklin is a highly sought coach. On the other hand, it can get tiring having to listen to these rumors every year it seems once a major job opens up.
Looking at the matchup with Auburn, what’s the biggest advantage you see for Penn State? What’s the biggest disadvantage?
The biggest advantage I see for Penn State is their secondary against Bo Nix. I’m just not a believer in Bo Nix and his improvements right now and I think the Penn State secondary can take advantage of any mistakes he makes. The biggest disadvantage will be Penn State’s defensive line against Tank. The defensive line is solid but Tank is probably the best running back they’ll face all year. He’s going to get his yards but I’ll be interested to see how well Penn State can limit the damage he creates.
Which names do we need to know on both sides of the ball?
On the offensive side of the ball, outside of Sean Clifford, names to know are; running backs Noah Cain and Keyvon Lee and wide revivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington. Additionally while the tight end position hasn’t made much noise through two games, keep a close eye on that position group as well. It may be the best tight end room in the nation.
Cain is your traditional workhorse running back, he’s struggled with injuries and has looked a little timid at times this year but when he’s on, he’s hard to bring down. He was a major reason for their win against Wisconsin. Lee stood out last season in replacing Cain and returned this year as the No. 2 running back. He’s a more traditional north-south style back but has added some more shiftiness to his game before this season. I don’t think either guy is likely to post 100+ yards this weekend due to the way Penn State rotates backs but they can do some serious damage.
Dotson is the name most Auburn fans are familiar with, he’s one of the best wide receivers in the country. Don’t be fooled by his size, he’s a big play machine and can beat you in several different ways. Just a truly fun player to watch. Washington is another smaller wide receiver but he has great hands and while he won’t break one as often as Dotson, he has some tremendous speed and is going to be a star sooner than later.
On defense, the names to know are defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, LB/DE Jesse Luketa, and going to cheat by saying just watch out for the entire starting secondary. Ebiketie, a transfer from Temple has been really impressive early this season. He’s incredibly quick and has a great first step, often in the backfield before the opposing quarterback knows what them. He’s going to need to have a big game. Luketa is a hybrid type player at this point but has really excelled this season, he had a pick-six last weekend against Ball State and really has grown into his new role really well. I have a gut feeling he’s going to make a major play in this game. Then like I said, cheating with the secondary. The entire starting secondary is really good and it’s led by preseason All-American Jaquan Brisker. There’s also J’ayir Brown at the other safety spot to be combined with corners Tariq Castro-Fields, Joey Porter Jr (yes, that Joey Porter), and Daequan Hardy. They’ve been stellar to start the season and I expect similar play on Saturday.
If Penn State wins this game, what’s happened on the field?
If Penn State wins this game, they played a smart and clean game overall. The Nittany Lions got burned last year by bad turnovers and stupid penalties at the worse time. So far this season, that hasn’t been the case. The offensive line will need to play well, giving Clifford time to go through his progressions and then Clifford will need to perform to his capabilities. They’ll need the run game to be effective, to try and get the Tigers off balance as well. Defensively, the defensive line will need to play well between the tackles while the secondary plays tight coverage against the Tigers wide receivers. Ultimately it will come down to the linebackers and defensive tackles in this one, in my opinion, for the Nittany Lions defense.
Right now, my gut is telling me Penn State wins a close one. This Nittany Lions team is talented on both sides of the ball and could have one of the top 10 defenses in the entire country. I think Auburn plays this game extremely close and I can definitely see them winning but for now, I’m going to say Penn State wins somewhere along the lines of 31-24. I do think the defenses for the majority of the game will be strong but I think both offenses will get some big plays that run up the score throughout the game.
Kickoff comes tomorrow night at 6:30 pm CST/7:30 pm EST on ABC! War Eagle!