Oh boy, here we are.
We’ve gone through a week of discussion on what in the world we saw against San Jose State, and whether it was total disfunction or a team just slow-playing what it wanted to do against the first real opponent it played.
Then came the orange jersey discussion — a genius misdirection move — and nobody remembered what happened with SJSU last Saturday. We’re not wearing orange jerseys, but it’s still fun to talk about, like planning what to do when you buy a Powerball ticket.
We still remember what happened last year in Happy Valley, the 28-20 defeat at Penn State that saw some really stupid things happen. Derek Mason’s smooth-brain scheme, and Auburn shooting itself in the foot by doing things like fumbling when literally nobody touched the player with the ball.
We’re a very different team from that time, with no Bo Nix, new coordinators, and a head coach who needs a win in the worst way. Penn State is likely the same, with the same quarterback and coach, and only really a new defensive coordinator who Auburn has seen many times in the past in Manny Diaz.
Auburn’s season can go infinite ways after this game, win or lose, but with a win it’ll certainly turn out much better for the Tigers, and help to ensure that Bryan Harsin might not get the Gus Malzahn retirement plan quite as early as we thought. Win this game and Auburn has a chance to be good, and with this schedule, that opens the door to a whole autumn of possibility.
WHEN PENN STATE HAS THE BALL: We’re all aware that the Penn State attack is going to look fairly similar to what we witnessed last season in Happy Valley. That is, Sean Clifford will be slinging the ball around the field. In 2021 he went 28-32 through the air, and the Auburn defensive gameplan somehow included allowing him to complete short passes and try to keep receivers in front of the defense.
It didn’t work.
Clifford has had an up-and-down start to the season, with the win over Purdue showcasing both sides of his game. He threw a horrible interception that turned into a pick-six and put PSU behind, but then drove for the game-winning touchdown in the final couple of minutes. The Nittany Lion offensive line didn’t do a great job at keeping his jersey clean, and that bodes well for Auburn with Derick Hall and Eku Leota playing well so far this season at rushing the passer.
Two of the talents that PSU had last season — Noah Cain and Jahan Dotson — are both gone (Cain is at LSU), but replacements are in the wings. Nicholas Singleton has emerged as a threat at tailback, running for 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns (10.5 ypc), with a 179-yard effort last week against Ohio. Mitchell Tinsley (10 catches, 111 yards, 2 TDs) and Parker Washington (6 catches, 90 yards) will be the main threats at receiver, and Brenton Strange is back at tight end. We remember him and Derek Mason’s distaste for covering tight ends in 2021. Currently, Strange is averaging 29.7 ypc on a limited sample size.
Penn State is looking for answers on how good they are at several positions — offensive line in particular — so this is a game that should clear some things up for both sides.
WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL: WELL. I think after last week, we’re going to see T.J. Finley in more of the true primary starter role, with Robby Ashford coming in on a play here and there, but likely not for full drives. Perhaps in a situation where we need some sort of a Wildcat formation, but not as the guy we’re trusting to lead the offense down the field consistently.
Finley is going to have to rely on the running game in this one, and this is the type of game where we have to see Tank Bigsby have his breakout, career-defining moment. A 175-yard, 2-touchdown game from Tank would almost assuredly mean that Auburn is controlling the line of scrimmage enough to secure a win, and I would imagine that the plan is to get him 20 carries minimum. We just can’t lean on the passing game enough at this point.
Now, Finley will have to make some throws. I’m sure he will make some here and there, but the early-game interceptions cannot come. We can’t get behind in the turnover margin on our first couple of drives and take the air out of the stadium.
I would look for more of an effort to get Ja’Varrius Johnson involved in the offense, as he’s been the most consistent wideout thus far. As a fanbase, we’re just not exactly sure what the Harsin/Kiesau offense is supposed to look like with less than two games of evidence in front of us. They’ve clearly been trying things out in the first couple of games as well, and haven’t honestly come up with solutions for a clear path forward.
Like PSU, our offensive line is a question mark. They struggled to get a push in the first two games at times, and that’s obviously troubling when you’ve got a B1G opponent coming to town. Bottom line, you have to start with the run game and stick with it throughout, hoping to really gash the Nittany Lions late.
SERIES HISTORY: Auburn is 1-2 against Penn State, losing the first matchup in 1996 before evening the series in the 2003 Capital One Bowl. Obviously PSU took last year’s game in Happy Valley.
LAST MEETING: Auburn fell in Beaver Stadium last year 28-20 with Sean Clifford throwing for 280 yards on 28-32 passing, with 2 TDs and an interception. Auburn had a chance to tie late, throwing into the endzone as time expired, but couldn’t crack the goal line. Tank Bigsby ran for both of Auburn’s touchdowns and 103 yards on the night.
LAST WEEK: Auburn beat San Jose State 24-16 last week, casting some hellacious questions on the potency of this team, while Penn State had no trouble with Ohio in a 46-10 victory.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO SURPRISE: We’re going to have to deal with a Penn State team that’s got some real weapons on offense, but with a rowdy crowd and the basketball team getting their SEC Championship rings, this is going to be an atmosphere for the Auburn defense to thrive. I think Cam Riley follows up his 15 tackle opening performance, and makes some huge stops including a big sack to stop a late drive. Our defensive line is going to have some extra blockers devoted, and Riley will have a chance to roam and likely follow around Clifford a good bit, thus giving him some opportunities to shine.
TUCKER GREGG AWARD CANDIDATE: It’s going to be Brenton Strange. We couldn’t cover the stupid tight ends last year, letting them sneak out for big gains multiple times. He and Theo Johnson caught long passes, and Strange is back. He’s averaging nearly 30 yards per catch, and if we let him get past the defense again, the grumbling will be unholy.
RANDOM PREDICITON WITH NO BASIS IN REALITY: Auburn jumps out to a 14-0 lead after two offensive drives bolstered by the crowd, and then has to hang on like crazy to win a very close game in the end.
KEYS FOR AUBURN:
- Tank, Tank, Tank. You’ve got to get him going. He has to be the focal point of the offense, and he has to be a workhorse in this game. Ride him as long as he’ll go, and spell him with Jarquez Hunter when necessary, but Tank is the answer today. Let the offensive line get into a rhythm, and it’ll pay dividends down the line as well.
- Jordan-Hare Stadium needs to be unglued. All we heard last year is that “oh, no SEC team can handle the whiteout and Beaver Stadium” like it was this religious experience. Look, it’s fine. It’s cool, they get loud and everyone is wearing the same color. Stadiums get loud all over the country, but there’s something about the sideways magic that can happen inside JHS when the crowd is willing the team to a win. It’s also not just about the game itself. Auburn is going to have recruits galore in town (football and basketball), and we need to have a good showing for that. Furthermore, this is the game you get if you’re Bryan Harsin. The crowd is going to give theirs today, Harsin needs to return the favor and offer a win over a big opponent for things to work going forward.
- The defensive line has to feast. I need Derick Hall to be digesting Sean Clifford’s spinal column tomorrow morning. This feeds from the crowd. Make big plays, get big atmosphere, continue to make big plays. It’s a cycle of success, and the defensive line can make the biggest impact by disrupting the passing game for Sean Clifford.