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No. 22 Auburn at No. 10 Penn State: Game Preview

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The Whiteout is back after a one-year hiatus!

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Ohio State at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Two ranked opponents collide in a prime time White Out clash. Let’s get it on.

Penn State (2-0) vs. Auburn (2-0)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State -5.5

TV: ABC - Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), Holly Rowe (sideline)

Weather: A warm day for pre-game festivities with a high of 80, with tempatures cooling into the 60s in the evening. Cloudy in the afternoon with a chance of a stray shower or storm, but clearing up by kickoff.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 62-28, 8th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 86-43, 11th Year

VS. AUBURN: 1-0

Bryan Harsin:

AUBURN RECORD: 2-0, 1st Year

OVERALL RECORD: 78-24, 9th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 0-0

FUN FACTS

AUBURN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Let’s start with Bo Nix, who returns for his third-year as Auburn’s quarterback. The former five-star prospect has seen some highs and lows, but did not progress as hoped in his second year as starter, with a completion rate of 59.9 percent and seven interceptions to just 12 touchdowns. Nix is off to a hot start to the season, although his numbers are skewed by the level of competition, as the Tigers have walloped both Akron and Alabama State, an FCS program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2015.

Penn State will no doubt look to get in Nix’s face early and often with its much improved pass rush to force same poor decisions. And while Nix may not be a lethal runner, he has to mobility to evade rushers and pick up a key first down or two when he sees a lane.

The Nittany Lions will have their hands full trying to shut down running back Tank Bigsby, who could be on his way to a first-team All-SEC season. As his name suggests, Bigsby is a powerful runner who also has the versatility and speed to break long runs, even when there isn’t much for him to work with. Bigsby had four games with at least 111 yards a season ago, all coming against SEC foes. He has picked up 241 yards with two scores on just 24 carries after two weeks. While he has the ability to come out of the backfield, he was sedomly used in the passing game in 2020, with all 11 of his receptions coming in two games, and no receptions during the other seven games on the schedule.

Auburn is breaking in a new set of receivers after losing their top three passcatchers from 2020 - who accounted for 68 percent of all receptions. Shedrick Jackson has the most receptions of the returnees with just six catches in 2020 for 84 yards and no touchdowns. He’s already surpassed that mark in limited snaps during the first two weeks with seven catches for 90 yards. Demetris Robertson is a dangerous option in his sixth season with the Tigers, with two of his six receptions going for touchdowns in the first two weeks.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. AUBURN DEFENSE

Auburn has allowed just 10 points after two games, but that is about what you should expect with Akron and Alabama State as the competition. There is high hopes for the Tigers defense though that returns six starters and others with significant experience.

Senior linebacker Zakoby McClain headlines the defense after amassing 113 tackles in 2020 and leading the team by a wide margin after the first two weeks. Defensive tackle Marquis Burks will cause some headaches in the middle, and already has two sacks on the season. while edge rusher T.D. Moultry leads the way with 2.5 sacks and 4.0 TFLs so far.

Auburn’s gameplan will likely be similar to what Penn State has seen in the first two weeks - keep everything underneath and try not to allow Dotson and co. to make plays deep. If so, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith will be ready to keep things moving, while Dotson will be Dotson and still find ways to create with the ball in his hands, as well as eventually slipping past the defense. This could also present a huge opportunity for tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson to play a more crucial role in the passing attack than we’ve seen in the first two weeks. Both have the size and athleticism to become major assets as the season continues.

Ultimately, the biggest factor in this game could easily come down to turnovers - making it crucial for Sean Clifford to continue avoiding costly mistakes as he’s done thus far after two games. While Clifford’s turnover issues were well-documented, he has shown much better decision making as of late, and has thrown just one interception in his last six games — which have all resulted in victories.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Tigers have one of the nation’s best kickers in Anders Carlson, who is accurate and has a strong leg. He’s connected on 23 of 26 attempts dating back to the start of the season, and has had at least one 50-plus yard boot in each of his first three seasons. Oscar Chapman returns as punter after averaging 41 yards in 2020. His average thus far into the current season is just 36.7 yards, although he has only punted three times during the first two games.

Safety Donovan Kaufman is handling kick return duty, and is averaging 20.3 yards per pop after three attempts this season.

Jordan Stout has been absolutely phenomenal in his roles as punter and kickoff specialist, earning Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after the victory at Wisconsin. There is some concern about his new role as placekicker though. He has missed a field goal in each of the first two games, including a 24-yarder in week one, when he also missed a crucial extra point attempt. He did make all five of his XP attempts against Ball State.

Penn State hasn’t shown too much sizzle in the return game after two weeks, but as he has proven over and over, Dotson is a big play threat whenever he touches the ball. Devyn Ford is averaging 22 yards per kick return, and seems to be on the verge of breaking one soon.

PREDICTION

Penn State-24, Auburn-17

We’ve learned quite a bit about the Nittany Lions in the first two weeks. The same can’t be said about Auburn though. They may be primed for a successful season after dominating on both sides of the ball. They may also just be overmatching inferior opponents with things shifting dramatically once the competition improves. It’s just too difficult to get a feel for the Tigers at this point.

I do see the similarities in the teams that will make for an intriguing, competitive match-up under the lights. Both defenses will play at a high level, causing lulls at times as the teams battle for field position with either offense being able to go the length and capitalize. This game will come down to big plays and turnovers, as well as which team is able to make plays when it matters most. If that is indeed the case, I like Penn State’s big play ability and tenacity on defense to outlast the Tigers best effort on Saturday night.

KeAndre Lambert-Smith has his best day as a Nittany Lion yet, with 90 receiving yards and a score, while Brenton Strange comes up with a score in the red zone as well. Noah Cain has a big night, with 100 all-purpose yards and a score, as well as many crucial third conversions throughout the game.

On defense, Ellis Brooks shines in the spotlight again with a team-high 11 tackles and a forced fumble, Jesse Luketa gets a sack and three TFLs, while Arnold Ebiketie forces a poor throw by Bo Nix that is picked off by Ji’Ayir Brown to seal the deal.

Let’s do this.