The start to Penn State’s 2021 football schedule is far from what one could consider easy.
After dispatching a tough Wisconsin team in Camp Randall in Week 1, the Nittany Lions returned home to face the reigning MAC champions, Ball State on Saturday.
All went well from a blue and white perspective, as Penn State rolled to a 44-13 home-opening win over the Cardinals. But the meat grinder of a schedule continues in Week 3, as the Nittany Lions will welcome No. 22 Auburn, fresh off a pair of 50-plus point victories to open the season.
“We’ve got, obviously, a huge game next week,” Franklin said in his postgame press conference following Saturday’s win. “We’re going to need (Beaver Stadium), like, rocking.”
The importance of the upcoming game against the Tigers was evident on Saturday, as the now 10th-ranked Nittany Lions showed an efficient, if a bit vanilla offensive attack.
In total, Penn State racked up 44 points and 493 yards on 79 offensive plays, good enough for an average of 6.2 yards per play. Additionally, Penn State picked up 31 first downs in the contest and notched a total of five explosive plays, or plays that gained 20 or more yards.
But first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has been here before and isn’t about to show Auburn every trick up his sleeve. For most of the game against Ball State, the Nittany Lions offense was controlled and methodical, if even a bit simplistic.
“Efficient. I think that’s the best word I would use is efficiency,” quarterback Sean Clifford said when asked to describe the offense after the game. “We were an efficient offense. We didn’t turn the ball over, which obviously, you again, you’ll win a lot of games if you don’t turn the ball over.”
The Penn State ground game, which churned out 240 yards on 48 carries, was largely vanilla, with Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee notching 69 and 68 yards, respectively, on a combined 28 carries. Clifford’s 230 yards through the air came on 21 completions, most in front of a Cardinals’ secondary that was refusing to give up big plays.
“Part of it is how they played,” Franklin said about the lack of big plays. “They played soft. They were not going to allow us to throw it over their head. I think that was obvious in their game plan on the defensive side of the ball. But by doing that, you create some free-access throws and I think we threw a pretty high percentage there in the first quarter, first half. So it’s kind of give and take.”
But what you see isn’t always an indicator of what you’re going to get, which could be an important note as Penn State prepares for an Auburn defense that has allowed just 10 points through two games, albeit against inferior competition. In his time at Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Texas, Yurcich’s offenses were known for repeatedly creating big plays. And with Jahan Dotson on the outside, the artillery is definitely there to do so again in Happy Valley. So will we see the offense open up a bit as the season progresses?
Cain seemed to think so when he spoke with the media following the contest.
“Coach Yurcich always tells us ‘be ready for anything,’” he said. “So we have to prepare, study different personnel packages (and) watch different film. It’s just the way we prepare, honestly, and I just think you guys are going to see more and more of these different formations all the next coming weeks.”
So, as the competition prepares to ramp back up for the Nittany Lions in a season that features five of their first 10 games against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25, fans can continue to expect the unexpected, particularly from the Penn State offense.
Clay Sauertieg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org