What in the world are we supposed to think? Auburn takes on Penn State tonight in Happy Valley in the biggest game of the season thus far, and there are different thoughts and takes floating around on all sides.
On one hand, Auburn has looked very good, much better than they would have last year against similar competition, even though those opponents were some of the worst teams in the country by all metrics. On the other hand, Auburn is heading into what many think will be an insurmountable mass of humanity featuring kids yelling and shaking their car keys. What’s more, they’ll be playing a team that already has one great win under their belt — a road victory at Wisconsin.
This is a unique type of non-conference game for the Tigers, to be sure. Rarely does Auburn venture north, let alone against the Big Ten. Couple of things:
- Auburn hasn’t played a current Big Ten team in the regular season since a game against Maryland in 1952.
- Auburn hasn’t played AT a current Big Ten team’s home stadium since 1931 (a tie with Wisconsin).
- Before that, Auburn beat Ohio State in 1917.
The insertion of this rule that you have to play someone from another Power Five league has done some great things, and spawning this home-and-home is one of them. While Penn State will visit the Plains next season, we get to kick off the series tonight in the nation’s second biggest stadium. It’ll be the largest stadium that Auburn has ever played a game in. And despite the interesting storylines on both rosters, somehow the stadium itself has become the main talking point all week long.
Auburn will be going into Beaver Stadium for the infamous Whiteout. Penn State students will be donned in white, screaming and yelling like crazy. It’s said to be one of the best atmospheres in college football, and we’ll have to see how it compares to the week in and week out environments in the SEC.
The Tigers might as well not even face off against the actual Nittany Lions on the field, by the way you’ve heard it this week, no SEC team could possibly face off against the crush of 106,000 rabid PSU fans. They won’t be playing, or on the field, just in the stands like regular fans. It’ll be loud, for sure, but Auburn has multiple 100,000+ seat venues on its schedule every single season.
What is sure is that Penn State boasts an opportunistic defense that held Wisconsin to 10 points despite allowing the Badgers to run 95 plays and hold the ball for more than 42 minutes. They’re at the very least resilient in not floundering long before the end in those conditions. Offensively, Auburn fans will almost assuredly dog-cuss Sean Clifford some heave that lands in the hands of Jahan Dotson after a near sack. You’ve just got to make the prayers count for you in a game like this.
Auburn has something to prove, and plenty of naysayers around the country.
It’s just Akron. It’s just Alabama State.
SEC teams don’t play well up north.
You’ll shit your pants when you see the Whiteout.
Bo Nix is terrible, and the Penn State defense is going to absolutely eat him up.
You can’t run the ball on us.
We’ve heard it before, and this is where the Tigers have historically played their best ball. Under the radar, underdogs, undervalued. It’s time to see what this new regime can do.
SERIES HISTORY: These two teams have met just twice over their entire histories, with both coming in the last three decades, and both in Florida bowl games. The first ever meeting came after the 1995 season, where the Tigers and Lions met on New Year’s Day 1996 in the Outback Bowl. Penn State came away with a 43-14 victory in the sloppy rain to end Auburn’s season at 8-4.
Several years later, the Tigers and Nittanies met again in Florida, this time a couple of hours away in the Capital One Bowl. Auburn came away victorious this time, with Ronnie Brown scoring the go ahead touchdown with about two minutes to play for a 13-9 Tiger win. Brown rushed for 184 yards in the game, and it was a large reason why there was so much hope leading into the 2003 season for Auburn. It was also Jim Fyffe’s final game behind the mic for the Auburn Network...
LAST WEEK: Both improved to 2-0 last week with wins over easy competition. The Tigers beat Alabama State 62-0, with a 35-0 third quarter providing the strength for the victory. In that win, Jarquez Hunter set the Auburn record for longest run from scrimmage, and Demetris Robertson scored the first three touchdowns of his Auburn career. Auburn’s defense turned in the shutout performance that they hoped for in Week One, and through that win earned the top scoring offense and scoring defense in college football.
Penn State, meanwhile, also had an easy time with Ball State in a 44-13 win. The Nittany Lions got the running game going after the tough effort at Wisconsin a week prior, and ran through a pretty even effort both on the ground and through the air for the simple win.
KEYS FOR AUBURN:
- Weather the early storm. It’s hilarious that hardly anyone has talked about the actual X’s and O’s on field this week. The discourse has turned into “Can Auburn handle loud fans” and a general SEC vs B1G crowd debate overall. We’re all pretty positive that the Tigers will be able to handle the Whiteout, especially since it doesn’t even give Penn State a big advantage (the Nittany Lions are 8-8 in Whiteout games), but it may pay a dividend for PSU early on. They may have a little boost to begin the game, and may take the lead behind some of the emotional flooding that comes. Once everyone gets hit a couple times, however, things will settle down. It’s Auburn’s job to not be down 14-0 in the first quarter. I believe that the Tigers can lean with Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter throughout the game to grab a little more offense late, but you don’t want to have too large a hole to dig out of.
- Don’t give up on the run. It follows with the end of the key above. Penn State held Wisconsin to about 3.0 yards per carry, when the Badgers ran 58 times in the 16-10 loss. Wisconsin ran 95 plays and held the ball for more than 42 minutes. If Auburn runs 95 plays, they will have won this game by double digits. The Badgers turned the ball over in the red zone, missed field goals, and gave up the big play on defense. I believe that Auburn and Bryan Harsin won’t turn the game over to Bo Nix if the running game is working at all in the first half. By the time the second half arrives, if the time of possession is that lopsided, there’s no way that Tank and Hunter won’t start gashing runs in the late third and fourth quarters. Be patient. Like Coach Boone said, it’s like novocaine, give it time, it always works.
- Don’t let Penn State land the haymaker. There’s a reason that the stats from the win over Wisconsin are so wild to read through when trying to analyze Penn State. It’s because the Nittany Lions got all of the intangible things that win you football games. Most coaches will tell you turnovers, special teams, and red zone are the areas that win and lose games, and Wisconsin was terrible in all three aspects. Penn State also hit the big play to flip the field when things looked most bleak on offense. Jahan Dotson and KeAndre Lambert-Smith each had 50-yard grabs on heaves from Sean Clifford, and those two plays constituted more than a third of the Lions total yardage.
If Auburn can stay even in the turnover game, convert points (maybe not touchdowns, but points) every time they hit the red zone, I think that pushes the Tigers win percentage much higher.
- Is... is this the year? All jokes aside, if Bo Nis has turned the page, then all of the metrics that have him among the top of the SEC in quarterback rankings will hold true in Happy Valley. He doesn’t need to be great, he just needs to be not bad tonight. If Auburn wins, it’s a likely story that Bo Nix had two or three great, impactful throws, and one real goof at most. Tomorrow morning if we’re looking at a 3-0 record and hopes for the Tigers are sky high, then Auburn will have someone on the team who’s going to be near the top of the early season Heisman straw polls. More than likely it’ll be Tank Bigsby, but if Bo somehow shows off on the road for the first time with all eyes on him, then we could truly see the effects of him HAVING FUN.
- How will the team handle the first adversity of the Bryan Harsin era? Let’s just go ahead and suppose that Auburn’s locked in a tight game and probably trails at some point tonight. We saw the way that Auburn came out of the locker room against Alabama State after a sluggish first half. They put up 35 points while running 8 plays in a single quarter. Bryan Harsin’s got a little motivation in him, and it apparently worked. What does that look like when the first quarter’s not going well against a top ten team? What kind of adjustments are made on the fly? I think we’ve seen more hands-on coaching from Harsin to his quarterback thus far than we saw with Gus, so maybe we have a quicker adaptation to what’s going wrong.
- How good actually is the Auburn defense? I think the same question could be asked of the offense, but the defense is the unit that most of the College and Mag staff holds to a higher standard. With the experience in the back seven, and the raw talent up front, the Tigers have the potential to be a top ten national defense. Tested against a juiced up offense tonight with 106,000 behind them, they could make the big plays, or they could wilt and allow Penn State to control things. We’ll know this time tomorrow where the final analysis of this entire unit is destined.
Kickoff comes at 6:30 pm CST/7:30 pm EST tonight. Lock in, and say your prayers. War Eagle.