The Nittany Lions look to remain unbeaten against a better-than-expected MAC squad in their home opener.
Penn State (1-0) vs. Ball State (1-0)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
The Betting Line: Penn State -22.5
TV: FS1 - Aaron Goldsmith (play-by-play), Mark Helfrich (analyst)
Weather: A beautiful, warm, sunny day that will be perfect for a return to tailgating throughout Happy Valley. The highs are in the mid-to-upper 70s with plenty of sunshine and no rain expected.
PENN STATE RECORD: 61-28, 8th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 85-43, 11th Year
VS. BALL STATE: 0-0
BALL STATE RECORD: 23-34, 6th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 23-34, 6th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 0-0
This is the first time Penn State and Ball State will meet on the gridiron...the Nittany Lions have played a MAC team as part of its non-conference schedule each season dating back to the 2002 (Penn State did not have a non-conference schedule in 2020)...Ball State enters the game on an eight-game win streak, which includes the MAC Championship Game and Arizona Bowl to close out the 2020 season...Sean Clifford is 21 yards shy of 5,000 career passing yards in the blue and white, and would become the 10th Nittany Lion gunslinger to reach the mark...Jahan Dotson will seek his fourth consecutive game with 100+ receiving yards.
BALL STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Drew Plitt returns as QB1 after leading the Cardinals to one of the best seasons in program history. He had a solid performance in week one against Western Illinois, completing 17 of 28 attempts for 188 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The competition will be much more difficult for Plitt this Saturday from what we saw of the defense’s incredible performance against Wisconsin. Plitt is well-experienced as he enters his fifth season with the Cardinals where he has either started or seen significant playing time going back to 2017. He’s coming off a season where he completed 66% of passes with 17 touchdowns to two interceptions in eight games. He doesn’t run with the ball often, but is frequently used as a rusher in short-yardage situations.
Senior Will Jones and freshman Carson Steele will split duties at running back. Jones led the way in week one with 93 yards and a score, while Steele made a huge impression with 79 yards and a score on just seven carries.
The Cardinals leading receiver, Justin Hall, is back and started off on a hot note in week one, with eight catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He is joined by Yo’Heinz Tyler, who is coming off a fantastic 2020 season when he finished with 24 receptions for 607 yards and eight touchdowns. Hall is a speedy and elusive target, while Tyler is a bigger target with a 6-3, 205 lb. build. Both will provide a tough test for the Nittany Lions secondary, which is coming off an outstanding performance against the Badgers.
Penn State will be without starting middle linebacker Ellis Brooks for the first half after being ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin. In his place will be veteran Jesse Luketa, who performed very well under the circumstances in Brooks’ absence.
Keep an eye out for Arnold Ebiketie, who made a number of eye-popping plays in his first outing in the blue and white. It will be interesting to see how the defensive end follows up against offensive lines that don’t quite stack up with the Badgers.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. BALL STATE DEFENSE
The Nittany Lion offense got off to a horrendous start in week one, with just 43 total yards and one lone first down in the first half. However, they made several adjustments that helped them attack Wisconsin’s soft spots as they found their footing in the second half. We should see that momentum carry over as the offense continues to find its footing under new OC Mike Yurcich.
We can likely expect Jahan Dotson to be the best player on either side again this weekend, and Sean Clifford may look to his favorite target early and often as they attempt to overmatch the Ball State defense. However, it won’t be as easy as you think. Ball State has some serious talent on defense that are likely on their way to a spot on an NFL roster. Safety Bryce Cosby will be supporting coverage of Dotson (as well as Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who have also proven to be downfield threats). Cosby is the most experienced player on the Cardinals with 44 career starts, as well as eight interceptions, under his belt.
Linebacker Brandon Martin is the standout of the Ball State defense and a capable playmaker. The defending MAC Defesnive Player of the Year finished eight nationally by averaging 11.3 tackles per game in 2020, along with 6.5 TFLs and a sack. However, he may be forced out of action on Saturday due to a week one injury. His status will be crucial as the Cardinal will need their biggest impact player on defense to help slow down Penn State’s offense.
Jake Chanove made his debut as the Ball State kicker on Saturday, connecting on all four XP attempts and drilled his only field goal attempt, a 35-yarder. Punter Nathan Snyder alo returns after earning an impressive 43.6 yards per punt in 2020.
Penn State’s kicking situation could be in for more changes. Jordan Stout is firmly in place as the kickoff specialist and punter, and performed so well in those areas that he was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week. However, he missed a 24-yard field goal attempt and a crucial fourth-quarter extra point. James Franklin noted that Stout beat out incumbent Jake Pinegar for the starting placekicker spot, but we may see Pinegar back in action if Stout’s placekicking woes continue in week two.
Neither team did much of note in the return game in week one, although Hall has been a dangerous returner for the Cardinals.
Penn State-34, Ball State-17
I’ll be completely honest - I expected to predict a very narrow victory for Penn State before last week’s game. However, the Nittany Lions were able to show me something that has quashed my biggest concerns - the overall ability of the entire defense at all three phases, as well as the capability to produce explosive plays on offense against what appears to be one of the nation’s top defenses.
Ball State is better than your typical MAC foe. The Cardinals finished the 2020 season ranked #23 and return all but one starter on either side of the ball. If you had a chance to watch them last year, you saw a tough, fundamentally sound team that doesn’t beat themselves - reminiscent of a MAC version of Iowa. Head coach Mike Neu has done an exceptional job, and his name will be popping up often once the coaching carousel begins. However, Penn State should be able to exploit mismatches on both sides of the ball to pull away, even if it’s not until the second half.
Dotson gets behind the defense to score on two occasions, while Parker Washington snags his first touchdown of the season. Keyvone Lee gets back in rhythm with 80 yards rushing while Noah Cain plows his way into the end zone for the second consecutive week. On defense, PJ Mustipher causes headaches for the Ball State offense with 3.5 TFLs, Arnold Ebiketie contributes two sacks ad a forced fumble, while Jaquan Brisker snatches an interception that helps Penn State pull away for good.