Penn State is off to an impressive and confidence-inspiring 3-0 start this season after a second win over a top 25 opponent. Penn State’s 28-20 victory over Auburn on Saturday night in whiteout conditions did a lot to continue reshaping the way people are looking at Penn State and their position in the Big Ten.
A win over Aubrun is a great way to not waste time diving into commentary about the officiating in the game, and it is always more enjoyable to focus on other takeaways from a game when your team does win. And there were plenty of thoughts to take from Penn State’s latest effort against Auburn.
For me, this starts with a look at the player I was most impressed with Saturday night.
Sean Clifford just played his best game in a Penn State uniform
It was far too easy to suggest the quarterbacks were going to be the difference in this matchup, and that was absolutely the case. Both Sean Clifford and Auburn’s Bo Nix are tough competitors that have been forced to shrug off some struggles throughout their collegiate careers. To his credit, Bo Nix played pretty well and didn’t put his Tigers in a terrible situation all game long (he did get away with a bad interception that was bobbled and dropped by Brandon Smith that could have really turned the game upside down for Auburn).
But Clifford turned in one of the best overall performances of his career by completing 28 of 32 pass attempts with a couple of touchdowns (I am not even going to knock him for the interception he threw late in the first half since he was hit as he delivered the pass; the INT didn’t cost Penn State anything as Auburn just ran the clock and went to halftime after being pinned by their own end zone). Clifford was never rattled and proved why he is so confident this season. He’s a gamer. If Clifford keeps playing like this, Penn State is going to win a few more big games this season.
Winning the first quarter and winning the fourth quarter
There is something to be said about getting off to a good start and finishing on a strong note. Penn State did both against Auburn on Saturdya night. Penn State had a scoring edge at the end of the first quarter with a 7-3 lead going into the second quarter. The Nittany Lions also closed out the game with a 7-3 advantage in the fourth quarter. The difference in the game? Eight points.
NEXT: Getting more from the running game?
Still room to improve on the ground
Credit the fierce Auburn defensive line for not allowing Penn State to get much going on the ground all night long. It was expected to be a tough battle on the line of scrimmage and the running game was likely to have to fight really hard for every run.
Penn State rushed for just 84 yards as a team with Noah Cain leading the team with 45 yards on 19 carries. Clifford had a 20-yard run for the longest run of the night by the Nittany Lions. Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich even tried mixing things up at times by getting Jahan Dotson in motion to carry the football, but Auburn snuffed that one out on the first play of the game.
Penn State will face some challenging defenses again this season, so the offensive line will have to get stronger up front to allow the running game to get a little more traction in big spots.
The whiteout delivers every dang time
After not having fans in the stadium last season, it was a beautiful sight to see as the whiteout made a triumphant return to Beaver Stadium. And although Auburn should be credited for not succumbing to the pressure of a whiteout atmosphere, there were a few moments where the crowd seemed to have an impact, including a false start penalty on the Tigers on a crucial possession in the fourth quarter.
Penn State’s overall record in whiteout games was ridiculed by many naysayers from SEC territory this week, but there is absolutely no disputing this was a terrific college football atmosphere. College football at its finest.
Is Penn State the best team in the Big Ten?
Maybe? It’s fair to suggest Penn State has the best overall resume through three week of the season with a road win against a top 25 Wisconsin team (which has now gone 2-1 overall and is facing Notre Dame in Chicago next week) and a top 25 Auburn team that was scoring 60 points per game coming in (Auburn may fall out of the top 25 rankings this week with the loss). Only the Iowa Hawkeyes can boast a similar profile through three weeks with wins against Iowa State and Indiana (who is now 1-2 after their home loss to Cincinnati in Week 3). Penn State will face Iowa in a matter of weeks and the possibility of a top 10 showdown between undefeated Penn State and undefeated Iowa is entirely in play.
Michigan continues to pound opponents on the ground and Michigan State is top 25 worthy following a solid road victory at Miami to go 3-0. Meanwhile, Ohio State struggled to take care of Tulsa for a while before pulling away in the fourth quarter, a week after losing at home to Oregon and leading to plenty of questions about the defense.
So, who is the best team in the Big Ten? You can make a case right now it is Penn State, but this is a question that will absolutely be answered on the field once Big Ten play goes all in for the rest of the season in a couple of weeks.