The Whiteout is back and the Nittany Lions are welcoming an SEC team to Happy Valley for the first time in a decade. A few members of our staff sat down to talk through Saturday's matchup.
The Nittany Lions dismantled the reining MAC Champion Ball State Cardinals last weekend. What's one thing you liked and one thing you didn't like out of Penn State?
John Morgan: The one thing that stood out was in my mind was that this could have easily been one of those slow start games where it's 10-7, but Penn State dominated from beginning to end and props to James Franklin and staff for having the team focused. Hard to find too much to dislike, if anything, but Sean Clifford was out there a little too long for my liking. He was never put in danger, but the sideline was certainly a lot safer with a comfortable lead.
Matt de Bear: I said last week that the biggest thing Penn State could to do avoid the letdown, trap game, etc. would be to start fast, and they really executed that perfectly. It was 14-0 after two offensive series, and the defense was giving the Cardinals very little space. Obviously, you would have liked to have seen some of those field goal drives in the second half end with six instead of three, but it sure felt like the staff really simplified things down the stretch to just manage the game to the end.
Nick Polak: I liked that they were able to win a game against an opponent that is a lot better than people probably realize while doing the bare minimum on offense. Sean Clifford wasn't asked to make any difficult throws (and actually made his best throw of the season to Keyvone Lee on a wheel route) and the run game was able to do the heavy lifting. One thing I did not like was that the offensive line still wasn't the dominant group that we were hoping they would be in 2021. They were better than Week One, and reserves were shuffling in before too long, but I was hoping to see a clean, stress-free pocket for Clifford all game, and running lanes galore. It didn't quite happen.
Auburn is outscoring their opponents 122-10 (granted they've played two awful teams). What does this Penn State defense need to do to slow down Bo Nix and Company?
John Morgan: Nick wrote about the key matchup in slowing down the Tigers running game. They need to get Nix into third and long situations. Even though every stadium in the SEC is three times as loud as Beaver Stadium according to a few knuckleheads on Twitter, I still think that would benefit the home team.
Matt de Bear: Keep doing what they've been doing. It's simple, but the recipe of stop the run, get pressure on the quarterback, and play tight in the secondary is a winning formula against any team, and the Lions have executed that just about perfectly through two games. Tossing out the garbage time touchdown vs. Ball State, the Nittany Lions have allowed just 16 points through eight quarters. Something is clearly working very well.
Nick Polak: Stop the run. The next time Bo Nix has a strong performance on the road against a good defense will be the first time. There is little question that the Tiger offense is going to run through Tank Bigsby and company. If Penn State wants to win this game, the front-seven needs to be able to stop the run without requiring safety help. Forcing Nix into as many obvious passing situations with both safeties roaming the back end is the game plan for Breny Pry's defense.
Let's stay on Bo Nix for a second - he's thrown 13 interceptions in his career and 12 of them have come on the road or in neutral site games. How does Penn State generate turnovers against a guy who has a tendency to give away the football?
John Morgan: Nix has played some really good defenses on the road so it's hard to put all the fault on him, but this too looks to be a pretty good defense. Arnold Ebiketie has been great through two games and if he can apply pressure on Nix, we could see that total grow.
Matt de Bear: Pressure, pressure, pressure. Penn State has just three sacks through two games, but they've no doubt gotten to quarterbacks, even if they haven't gotten them to the ground consistently quite yet. We've seen the impact of that pressure with the interceptions the Lions have pulled down in the first two games. Keep that up, and add a dose of a frenzied Whiteout crowd, and it's a great recipe for Brent Pry's crew.
Nick Polak: Kind of the same answer as above? Force him into obvious passing situations and don't have extra resources devoted to stopping the run game, and the interceptions will come. It sounds naive to say it so matter of factly, but it's just what Nix does in these games. The defensive line will need to create some pressure, of course, and with Jesse Luketa back on the edge full-time, I expect them to do just that.
We've heard from a few guys this week that Yurcich still has a lot to his offense we haven't seen. Do you think we'll see him open the playbook a bit or do you think they can get the W while still keeping things hidden?
John Morgan: I think we will see a lot of the same this week as the team still settles in on offense. As Dan pointed out in Snap Counts, the Nittany Lions have gone to a lot of two-tight end sets so possibly we could see one of the talented tight ends try to open up the middle of the field.
Matt de Bear: I think they'll show exactly as much as they need to to get the win. I don't think they've consciously hidden parts of the playbook so much as they either haven't liked them given their matchup (Wisconsin) or haven't needed to use them (Ball State). Sure, there will probably be some more wrinkles to try and keep Auburn off base, but if they can get a lead, grow a lead, and hold a lead without getting overly creative, that'll be the M.O.
Nick Polak: The only reason that I think Yurcich would keep any part of the playbook under wraps for this one would be if they either raced out to a big lead early on or if the team simply doesn't have some of the concepts/plays down yet. This isn't the type of game you hold anything back from, this is a ranked SEC opponent in your house in the Whiteout. This is when you impose your will however you can and bust out all the stops. Auburn has a strong defense and showing new looks will not only be the best chance at winning, but also help them continue to game plan for other elite defenses (like Iowa).
Late kick. Beautiful weather expected. What's on the menu?
John Morgan: I am superstitious and though I talked about burgers and hot dogs and Pittsburgh craft beer a week ago, I called an audible and went back to pizza and wings and some old-fashioned PBR pounders.
Matt de Bear: Lots of cold adult beverages. This is my first visit back to Happy Valley since the 2019 Pitt game, so I will be at the (wonderful) mercy of the tailgate grill, and our (many) coolers.
Nick Polak: Not sure! We'll be at a friend's house for this one, so I am at the mercy of their kitchen. I'm sure it will be good though, it's always good. They're not Penn State fans nor do they read this blog, so I'm not sure why I'm going out of my way to make sure they know I appreciate their food and their efforts, but here we are.
It's time - Who Ya Got?
John Morgan: Penn State 38 Auburn 17. I just feel like Penn State is pretty good and Auburn is a decent team. This score could be served in the form of crow come midnight, but I just have a feeling this could be a big win for the Nittany Lions.
Matt de Bear: As you said, Auburn is a pretty massive unknown through two games, thanks to a basically not existent strength of schedule. Sagarin has an opening slate of Akron and Alabama State ranked in the 200s. But obviously, they have some talent and will do some things that Penn State hasn't seen through two games, especially with their overall athleticism upfront. However, this is a confident, and talented Penn State squad. As long as the offense can again avoid turning the ball over, I think the Lions win this one relatively handily. Penn State 31, Auburn 17
Nick Polak: Penn State 28, Auburn 13. I think Penn State is straight up the better team here, plain and simple. The Tigers have a lot of talent themselves, but asking a team to travel from Alabama to Pennsylvania, play in the Whiteout, at night, with a still-new head coach, against a team with an elite defense? That's asking a lot! I think the Lions take an early lead in this one and don't look back.