Rapid reaction: Penn State makes daring approach work in wild victory over Auburn
Apparently, The Creamery and Mike Yurcich are all out of vanilla. The only plain white was in the stands Saturday night as Penn State outlasted and out-imagined Auburn in bizarre 28-20 victory.
With quarterback Sean Clifford producing the game of his life, new OC Yurcich and head coach James Franklin went a little crazy, as did the game’s officiating crew.
It all worked out in the end for the No. 10 Lions, who put on quite a show in front of the ABC cameras.
The Lions’ derring-do included direct snaps to third-TE Tyler Warren in goal-line situations (2), 320-pound defensive tackle PJ Mustipher running the ball on a fake punt, star receiver Jahan Dotson completing a pass, and transfer running back John Lovett playing for the first time this season.
The offense spread the field in every direction, with plenty of swing passes and plenty of throws down the seams to tight ends. By midway through the fourth quarter, Clifford was 28-of-32 for 280 yards and 2 TDs, with 1 INT on a deep heave late in the first half.
With 7 minutes remaining, Penn State led 28-20. Auburn remained in range of a tying score because of the one thing the Lions still can’t do consistently: pick up 1 or 2 yards on third down.
The officials allowed Penn State fans to get excited when Joey Porter Jr. apparently returned a fumble for a clinching score with just over 5 minutes left in the game. The Auburn player was clearly down, and replay fix the call.
But that was just the latest in a series of strange calls. Mustipher’s forward progress was ruled stopped on the fake punt, even though it seemed the whistle did not blow until he had been pushed past the line to gain. The calls in the first half were even more egregious.
When all the strangeness shook out, Auburn wound up with a 4th-and-goal at the 2. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix lofted an uncatchable ball to a man being covered by Jaquan Brisker. Penn State’s bend-but-don’t-break defense had survived again.
Like in the season-opening victory at Wisconsin, Penn State gave its opponent a final possession in the waning minutes. But Auburn’s deep heaves didn’t connect.
Earlier, Ellis Brooks answered with a 3rd-and-1 stop to end the third quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Anders Carlson’s 43-yard field goal pulled Auburn within 21-20.
After an interesting, back-and-forth first half, Auburn tried to get tricky to start the second half. The play ended up in a fumble, giving Penn State the ball at Auburn’s 20. Clifford, showing no ill effects from a big hit he took just before halftime, hit Dotson for 17 yards to set up 1st-and-goal from the 5. Two plays later, TE Tyler Warren took a direct snap and leapt 2 yards for a touchdown.
It was the second time in the game Warren was involved in an imaginative play, as first-year OC Mike Yurcich revealed several new wrinkles. After a close, tense, back-and-forth first half, the 110,000 fans — give or take a few — all dressed in white started really rocking Beaver Stadium as Warren’s score gave the Lions a 21-10 lead.
But Auburn wasn’t done. After receiver Kobe Hudson dropped the ball while seemingly looking to pass on the Tigers’ first play of the second half, the Tigers went right back to their bread and butter: power running. They went 75 yards in 15 plays, with Tank Bigsby carrying 8 times for 38 yards, including the final 6. Penn State 21, Auburn 17.
The game certainly lived up to the hype through the first 30 minutes.
Here’s a sampling of what went on in a first half that got bizarre at times, mostly courtesy of the SEC officiating crew (who decides these things?):
- Clifford was called for grounding on a play where no defender was near him as he tossed the ball deep just as his intended target broke off the route. Okay, that’s bad enough, but then the officiating crew determined it was fourth down when it was actually third, forcing the Lions to punt on third down.
- Later in the half, the officials granted Penn State a first down when its second-down play ended clearly a full yard short of the marker. On replay, they fixed that one. (Penn State picked up the first down and ended up scoring on the drive.)
- Clifford had his best half in quite some time, perhaps of his college career, going 16-of-20 for 168 yards and 2 TDs. Late in the half, he did heave the ball deep for an interception, the team’s first turnover of the season. He also took a worrisome hit while releasing the ball.
- Auburn came as advertised, trying to pound the ball up the middle with backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter, who combined for 54 yards on 11 carries, including a 4-yard touchdown burst by Bigsby. QB Bo Nix hit some nice back-shoulder throws and went 11-of-17 for 99 yards.
- New Penn State OC Mike Yurcich mixed plays more than he had through the first 2 weeks, getting 3 TEs involved in the passing game and setting up Jahan Dotson for 7 catches for 58 yards and TD. Dotson also threw a pass, after a lateral from Clifford, hitting Warren. That play, like several others, had Clifford lining up under center. It seems that will be part of the offense going forward.
- Penn State LB Brandon Smith had a potential pick-6 in his hands but bobbled it several times and dropped it.
In all, the Lions played well in the first half yet only led 14-10. PSU outgained the Tigers 264 yards to 158 and had 16 first downs to the Tigers’ 9. But the excitement and strangeness was just getting started.