In the 129-year history of football at Auburn, the Tigers have only faced one Big 10 team on the road in the regular season. That will become two on Saturday when the No. 22 Tigers go on the road to face No. 10 Penn State.
The Tigers and Nittany Lions have met twice in bowl games, splitting the series record. Penn State won the first matchup over Auburn 43-13 in the 1996 Outback Bowl. Auburn won the previous matchup in the 2003 Capital One Bowl, where the Tigers upset the then-No.10 Nittany Lions 13–9.
The Top-25 match-up will be the first true test of the season for Bryan Harsin’s Tigers, in an incredibly hostile environment during Penn State’s annual White Out game. Here are some players to watch and keys to victory for if the Tigers hope to stay undefeated.
Players to watch
Edge T.D. Moultry
Moultry came back for a fifth season with the Tigers boasting a new confidence and a motor for production. After getting respectable playing time in his freshman and sophomore years, the former four-star recruit found himself buried on the depth chart in 2019 and 2020 but has blossomed into a serviceable starter. Through two games, Moultry has 10 tackles and two sacks – tied for second and first on the team, respectively. Watch out for the senior from Birmingham to get to Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford to limit his deep throws.
Quarterback Bo Nix
This is the first road game in a hostile environment for Nix since the 2019 matchup at LSU. In that game, Nix completed 15-of-35 passes for 157 yards, one touchdown and an interception. In his three-year career Nix has thrown 13 interceptions, with 12 of them being either away or at a neutral site.
Nix has had a good start to the 2021 season, throwing 471 yards and five touchdowns through two games, but those games were against Akron and Alabama State. The junior quarterback has a history of struggling on the road in big games under former coach Gus Malzahn, so it will be worth watching whether that changes in the Harsin era.
Tank Bigsby/Shaun Shivers/Jarquez Hunter
A little bit of cheating, but the fact is that the Tigers will need to rely on all of their running backs, not just one. The Nittany Lions are in the middle of the pack of the Big 10 in terms of run defense, allowing 145 rush yards per game.
Shivers didn’t play last Saturday against Alabama State, and if he is unable to go in Happy Valley then that will lead to an increased role for both Bigsby and Hunter. Through two games the Tigers are ranked third in college football in rushing yards per game with 340. Look for Harsin to rely on the run game, especially if Nix struggles early.
Keys to victory
#1: Run the ball
As mentioned earlier, the Nittany Lions rank in the bottom half of the Big 10 in run defense. In their Week 1 matchup against Wisconsin, the Badgers ran for 180 yards and a touchdown. With the likes of Bigsby and Hunter carrying the ball for Auburn, the Penn State defense could have a long night ahead of them.
#2: Limit big plays, keep the crowd out of it
The White Out game has become a staple in college football, with over 100,000 fans in University Park losing their minds when their Nittany Lions take the field. Crowd noise can have a serious effect on the game, but limiting big plays will keep the crowd out of the game.
Two important plays in Penn State’s win over Wisconsin were a 49-yard touchdown from Clifford to Janah Dotson in the third quarter, and then a 42-yard pass to Dotson again to set up a touchdown run in the fourth quarter. If the Auburn defense is able to avoid Clifford taking the top off the defense, the crowd will not have as much to cheer for, making it easier for the Auburn offense.
#3: Tighten up all the mistakes
It may have been a 62-0 win last Saturday, but Auburn started off sloppy in its first half against Alabama State. In reality, Nix was missing passes, receivers were dropping passes, the ball hit the turf and there were a few near-interceptions. The Tigers relied on a blocked kick returned for a touchdown to get the momentum going, which turned into a 35-point third quarter.
Mistakes like these may be reversible against an FCS team, but won’t fly at Beaver Stadium against Penn State. If Harsin wants to leave undefeated, his Tigers will need to clean up the mistakes that were shown last week.