Auburn and Penn State meet in two days at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the Tigers will be looking to avenge a 28-20 defeat in Happy Valley last season. There’s a ton that’s changed for both teams, but some of the main components are still around for both sides as well. With the script flipping to the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium, the folks over at Black Shoe Diaries have given us a little insight on what to expect from PSU on Saturday.
Last year Sean Clifford was 28-32 for 2 touchdowns and no turnovers in the 28-20 win in Happy Valley. Through two games, have you seen something that says he can duplicate that effort?
Duplicate that effort, no. Be good enough to win a game, yes. That game was far and away Clifford’s most complete performance in a Penn State uniform. Even the interception he did throw, there was one, came late in the first half and was worth the downfield risk. Clifford is consistent in his inconsistency, but I think a lot of people overlook games where he’s made a ton of “winning” plays. He was good against Purdue with his stats being hurt some thanks to some drops. The interception was egregious, a play that Penn State won’t be able to overcome on Saturday. But he’s also shown the ability to bounce back and that was never more apparent than with the two-minute drill to beat Purdue.
Like you mentioned to us, Penn State has turned into an aerial team all of a sudden. What happened to the days of Larry Johnson and Saquon Barkley? Is this something that James Franklin wants to do, or has the run game dried up?
It starts up front, right? Penn State’s offensive line wasn’t very good last year - and that’s putting it nicely. The long gain of the 2021 on the ground was about 40 yards and they really struggled in short yardage situations. The offensive line has been in wait and see mode for basically all of James Franklin’s tenure. It’s truly changed his legacy in some ways because a more effective 4-minute offense would mean 8-10 more wins on his ledger and a near sure playoff appearance in 2017.
We think we’ve got ourselves one of those generational backs, however. With the obvious caveat that “it was against Ohio”, freshman and former 5-star recruit Nicholas Singleton broke out last week with 179 yards and two long touchdowns. He has the burst that Penn State’s stagnant running game has missed the last two years. Now…is he ready to do that against an SEC team on the road? That’s why this game is so intriguing for Penn State. We want questions answered.
Aside from Clifford, who are Auburn fans dog-cussing on Saturday if the Nittany Lion offense is having success moving the ball?
I’ve mentioned Singleton. Again, I think it’s a big ask for a freshman to be relied upon so heavily against a good front seven and running behind a…how should we say…still developing offensive line. But if he performs well Saturday, I think the hype train could get started for last year’s Gatorade National High School Player of the Year.
The other guy to watch - WR Parker Washington. He’s off to sort of a quiet start with just 90 yards through two games as everyone looks for him to replace Jahan Dotson. But he had more than 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. He’s not a burner, but he has great body control and is a tough route runner.
Defensively, who should we know about aside from Joey Porter, Jr.?
Defensive end Chop Robinson is emerging as Penn State’s best defensive lineman. He’s a transfer from Maryland who was a touted recruit. He ended the game against Purdue with his pressure and he was very good against Ohio before giving way in the second half to let other guys get work.
Also, so sort of a funny thing - no one is talking about the other starting cornerback, Kalen King. Joey Porter Jr. has all the pass breaks up, while King really didn’t seem to get too much action against Purdue. Were they targeting Porter because he was against their top receivers or was it guys weren’t open on the other side? I think it will be interesting to track that as the season progresses because this secondary is far and away Penn State’s best overall unit.
Manny Diaz comes in after a journeyman career around college football. What differences can we expect to see from the Penn State defense from last year?
More man and more exotic blitzes. Part of this is because it’s just Manny’s style, but also he’s going to have to find ways to generate pressure with limited top tier pass rushers off the edge. I’ve mentioned Robinson and he is turning out to be a huge addition, because some of Penn State’s other defensive ends lack experience or explosiveness. This means that pressure is being generated with blitz packages and Diaz is relying on the depth and quality of the secondary to protect. They were tested throughout the Purdue game. I worry and wonder how Diaz will adapt against a more run-based team on Saturday and I also worry about the secondary’s penchant for getting hit with holding or pass interference calls as Auburn takes shots off of play action.
Keys and prediction for the game?
Keys are simple and straightforward: turnovers and battle in the trenches. Penn State dropped multiple interceptions in the nighttime opener at Purdue and lived to get a win. They can’t get that lucky twice. They also can’t survive a critical Clifford interception - something that hurt them in losses at Iowa and Ohio State last year. Meanwhile, Auburn’s run game is scary. Purdue ran effectively against Penn State and that was with a marginal back. Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter were both effective at gashing a Penn State team with way better linebackers last year. I think Auburn has the ability to wear down Penn State’s front seven. In the preseason, I predicted Penn State would drop one of their two September road games. They snuck out a win against Purdue, so I guess that makes this the one. If Penn State wins, it’s a huge swing game and they’ll be 5-0 in mid-October. That sounds fun. But I have come to understand Jordan-Hare is a place where weird things happen. That reminds me a lot of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium. That place wasn’t fun for Penn State last year as Clifford got injured, the Lions blew a lead, and the season came off the tracks. I don’t think this one is quite that dramatic in terms of long term impact, but I see Auburn winning. Let’s say 26-20.