Game Preview: No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions vs Ball State Cardinals

By Joel Neuschwander on September 10, 2021 at 8:30 am
Ball State faces off against Western Illinois at Scheumann Stadium Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.
© Jordan Kartholl/The Star Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Take a deep breath, Penn State fans. Last week was a whirlwind. It certainly wasn't pretty, but the Nittany Lions got the job done in a tough environment. Now, Penn State turns its attention to its home opener and a first-time opponent.

  Penn State ball state
2021 Record 1-0 1-0
Head Coaches James Franklin (85-43, 61-28 with Penn State) Mike Neu (23-34 all with Ball State)
Kickoff 3:30 PM EDT 
Television Fox Sports 1
Stream Watch Fox Sports
spread Penn State -22.5

what to watch for

How the offense starts

The goose egg left on the scoreboard is what we'll remember, but for the most part, the Nittany Lions weren't even within striking distance of putting points up in the first 30 minutes against Wisconsin – five of their six first-half drives resulted in a three-and-out. In fact, 24 of Penn State's 38 yards in the first two quarters came on one play – an early Sean Clifford completion to Parker Washington.

Needless to say, it's important that the offense starts off on the right foot. Give a three-touchdown underdog any reason to believe it can pull off the upset, and things could spiral from there.

Nittany Lion receivers could shine

Although it walked away with a 10-point victory, Ball State gave up 367 yards through the air against Western Illinois, with the Leathernecks' Dennis Houston racking up 237 yards and two scores on 12 catches.

With those kinds of numbers being surrendered to an FCS team, it's fair to wonder just what kind of stat line Washington, Jahan Dotson, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith can put up against a seemingly porous Cardinals' pass defense. Look for Penn State to attack downfield early and often.

Time of possession

​Penn State had the ball for just a little over 17 minutes last Saturday. While a lot of that was due to the Nittany Lions striking fast on their scoring drives, the offense stalling early in the game didn't give the defense much of a breather between series.

It all worked out in the end, and now, against a less talented team, Penn State should find controlling the clock an easier challenge. Winning the time of possession battle is a great way to ensure the Nittany Lions' defensive unit stays fresh and doesn't have to go above and beyond (although they are definitely capable of doing that).

Not the usual MAC foe

​​One glance at the schedule may have led fans to gloss over the Cardinals as just another random small school from the midwest that will collect their paycheck and leave with a 40-point defeat as so many others have done in the past decade.

But Ball State accomplished something the Nittany Lions couldn't in 2020 when it ended the season ranked in the AP Top-25. The Cardinals punctuated a 7-1 season with their first bowl win in program history. Will this game hang in the balance in the fourth quarter? Unlikely. Is this the best Mid-American Conference team Penn State has ever faced? Probably, and Ball State returns 20 of its starters from last year's squad.


No, it won't be just like beating Akron, but while riding last week's high, Penn State should win this one comfortably.

Luckily, the Nittany Lions won't be alone in their pursuit of a victory Saturday. 107,000 of their closest friends will be back to help propel them to a 2-0 start ahead of a primetime showdown with Auburn.