To everyone who wasn't a fan of either The Auburn Tigers or Penn State Nittany Lions, this game was going to be closes. Most thought it would come down to the waning seconds. And, for the second time in three weeks, that’s exactly what happened.
The anticipation had been building up for both fanbases, and in other parts of the country as well. An SEC team making its way to a Big Ten campus for the first time since 1933. Two teams who had only met twice, in the Outback and Capital One bowls —in 1996 and 2003, respectively, splitting the two games.
Now, Auburn was set to experience what Michigan and Ohio State had been going through for the past 10+ years: The deafening sound brought forth by the sea of white in the stands. As an SEC team, the Tigers are used to tough road environments. After tonight, maybe they’ll add Beaver Stadium as another one of those.
As above mentioned, the game played out according to script. Auburn threw the first punch, Penn State responded almost immediately, and back and forth it went from there, until the Nittany Lions were able to take a lead they would not relinquish.
The Nittany Lions started on offense, after Auburn won the toss and elected to defer. Right away, it was clear Penn State was going to move the ball on this Auburn defense. The Lions picked up two quick first downs to find themselves at midfield when, facing a 4th and 1 at the Auburn 44, Penn State opted to go for it, but was stopped short of the line to gain.
Auburn would take the turnover on downs and turn it into points, opening up the scoring for the tigers. Tank Bigsby took the first snap for the Tigers and quickly scampered for 18 yards to put Auburn at the Penn State 33, after which the Lions clamped down. A drive that certainly looked like a touchdown after that first cary, and aided by a pass interference penalty to boot, only ended in three points for the visitors.
A pair of three-and-outs by both offenses would lead to Penn State’s first points of the game, as they used a six-play, 88 yard drive that took 2:33 off the clock, leading to the Nittany Lions’s first score of the game.
A drive that started in the first quarter, Auburn relied on a balanced attack to have their own sustained drive, answering the Nittany Lions’ touchdown with one of their own. The aforementioned Bigsby, as well as Jarquez Hunter, would carry the ball a combined six times in the drive, while Bo Nix threw five completions in the 11-play drive that would give the Tigers the lead once more.
Immediately after Auburn’s touchdown, what will likely come down as one of the most egregious refereeing sequences of the season ensued. The Nittany Lions took over at their own 21, would get a first down on the legs of Noah Cain, then would proceed to take a deep shot, where, likely due to a miscommunication between Sean Clifford and receiver Parker Washington, Penn State would end up being flagged for intentional grounding —the reasoning being that no receiver was in the area.
But that, of course, was not the worst part of the sequence. After the penalty and the loss of down, the Nittany Lions would throw a quick pass to Jahan Dotson, who took it for five yards and a more manageable 3rd and 11. Except there was no third down. The officials, who somehow mishandled the down count, went from first to third, and would force Penn State to punt on third down:
To their credit, the SEC would later admit that the error in officiating error, acknowledging that there should have been an extra down before the Lions punted the ball.
Gaffe aside, the Lions would force a punt of their own (on fourth down, of course), and would take the ensuing drive 91 yards into the end zone, capping a 14-play drive that took six minutes and 49 seconds off the clock.
Pinned at their own 9-yard line, it seemed like Penn State would be happy to get out of dodge and flip field position. Instead, Clifford would engineer one of the best drives of the young season, finding four different receivers to throw the ball to, including tight ends Brenton Strange and Tyler Warren. Noah Cain would contribute a couple of plays on the ground, and the Lions would find themselves once again with the lead.
A punt later and 45 seconds to go, the Nittany lions would threaten to extend the lead when the Lions quickly drove to the Auburn 47 yard line. Clifford would get hit as he threw a ball deep, which would be deflected and fall into the hands of an Auburn defender.
Call it Karma, call it Penn State making plays when they needed to, but the opening of the third quarter saw Auburn try to trick Penn State by attempting something the Lions had earlier in the game —that being a play where Clifford passed to Dotson, and Dotson would then pass to Tyler Warren, en route to their second touchdown of the day, but Kobe Hudson did not get the same results as Dotson. Instead, he fumbled the ball trying to escape defenders, and Derrick Tangelo would jump on the ball almost immediately. Four plays later, Penn State would stretch the lead to 11.
Auburn wasn’t going to give up that easily, of course, and would answer with a 15-play, 75 yard drive that took seven minutes off the clock. After yet another officiating gaffe where PJ Mustipher would get a horrible spot on a fourth down attempt, Auburn drove down the field but would settle for a field goal. And suddenly, the Lions were only up one heading into the fourth quarter.
As Auburn sailed the field goal that would close the gap to one, the Nittany Lions had yet another long drive to answer. This time it was a nine-play, 75 yard drive that involved John Lovett and Brenton Strange, and would conclude with a Noah Cain touchdown with 10 minutes and 48 seconds to go in the game. And, of course, those would prove to be the last points of the contest.
After a pair of punts, the Tigers would get one more opportunity to tie the game. Another sustained drive (this time it was 11 plays for 73 yards) would put Auburn all the way inside the Penn State 2, and on fourth down, one of the most baffling play call decisions of the game ensued, as Bo Nix sailed a fade well above his intended receiver, and the, presumably, expected pass interference call never came. Like Wisconsin in week one, Auburn would get one more shot to try to tie the game, but, like Wisconsin in week one, the defense found a way to stem the tide.
Stats and Storylines
4 - Number of incompletions Clifford had in this game. He went 28 of 32, good for an 88% clip.
84 - Rushing yards by the entire Penn State backfield. It did not hurt them in this contest, but the Nittany Lions have to find a way to run the ball better against top competition.
182 - On the other hand, Auburn rushed for 182 yards, which, given how they were running the ball in the first two games, is actually respectable. That said, you want to see that contained moving forward, otherwise Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State, not to mention Ohio State, will make the Lions pay.
1 - Turnovers through three games. The Nittany Lions aren’t devoid of mistakes, but so far they’re taking care of the ball.
Rough day for the crew - Big Ten fans complain about their refs, but this SEC crew has having a real good time on the field. There was the aforementioned missing down, as well as a couple of shoddy spots against both teams (though the one time a shoddy spot would benefit Penn State, replay review overturned it). All in all, it was not a good day for these officials.
Sticky hands - Remember when drops were a storyline for the wide receivers? The story now could not be farther from that. Led by Dotson, these receivers (and now the tight ends too!) are catching everything thrown at them, and that ball catching ability is making things a lot easier on the rest of the team.
Decisions, decisions - Speaking of receivers catching balls, Sean Clifford’s decision making has done a complete 180 from where it was a year ago. Clifford is staying in the pocket, going through his progressions, and finding open receivers wherever they may be, and those receivers are rewarding the quarterback with acrobatic plays.
Sustained drives - Both teams had them tonight, but it was the Nittany Lions who would turn their sustained drives into touchdowns. As long as the Penn State defense can continue to force teams to settle for field goals (or no points at all), Penn State will have a chance in each an every game moving forward.
[Ed. Note: I sincerely thought about making this section all the tweets we collected over the week, but instead of doing that, I chose to focus on the actual win some more.]