Bryan Harsin

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin

There are only 10 weeks to go before the Auburn football team returns to action against Akron in the season-opener. After the Tigers face off against the Zips and in-state foe Alabama State, they will travel for their first road game of the season into the hostile confines of Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. 

Auburn and Penn State have never faced each other during the regular season but it is expected to be a key matchup early in the season that will let each team get a sense of how they are developing. 

Hailing from the Big Ten Conference and led by head coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions will be looking to rebound after a difficult year in 2020. Penn State played nine games, falling to Indiana, Ohio State, Maryland, Nebraska and Iowa before closing out the pandemic-altered season on a strong note with wins against Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois. 

The Nittany Lions will face the Tigers on Sept. 18 after opening the season on the road against Wisconsin and facing Ball State at home in week two.

The Nittany Lions’ offense will be trying to piece itself together heading into 2021 after losing several key players to the transfer portal and the NFL Draft. 

Starting senior quarterback Sean Clifford will be returning after throwing for 1,883 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Clifford also threw nine interceptions, which has been a focus point for Penn State coaches to clean up on in the offseason. 

While Clifford is returning, his two backups from 2020, Will Levis and Micah Bowens, transferred, leaving the depth chart very shallow at the position. 

Clifford will still have star receiver Jahan Dotson to target this season. Dotson caught 52 passes for 884 yards last year. Penn State’s main issue will be giving Clifford enough time to pass as the offensive line gave up plenty of sacks in 2020, finishing last in the Big Ten with 28 allowed. The weak interior of the line should be an interesting matchup for Auburn’s defensive tackles, who will be looking to prove they are a dominant unit early on.

On defense, the linebackers will be the strength of the Nittany Lions. Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa are inside linebackers who led the team in tackles and finished second, respectively, in 2020. Brandon Smith is the key outside linebacker, leading the team with eight tackles for loss last season. Penn State will lose end Antonio Shelton to Florida, but gain Arnold Ebiketie from Temple to help out the pass rush. 

All of the cornerbacks and safeties have experience, but the key defender in the secondary will be Jaquan Brisker. Brisker was third on the team last season in total tackles with 57, with six pass breakups and one interception. He will be the key to the Nittany Lions’ pass defense against Auburn.

Penn State is deep at the running back position but their top back of 2021 may have just arrived to campus in the form of senior John Lovett. The former Baylor running back rushed for 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns in his time with the Bears and will be looking to be a key contributor in the backfield this upcoming season. 

For Lovett and the rest of the offense, turnovers will be key. Penn State had 17 turnovers last season— nine interceptions and eight fumbles. Auburn will want to keep the trend alive as Penn State is 0-4 in the last two years when throwing multiple interceptions. 

On defense, the Nittany Lions had difficulty generating a pass rush, with their lowest sack per game total since 2013. After only averaging 2.33 sacks each outing, they will be looking to improve drastically. Auburn’s experienced offensive line will be looking to stand up to the early challenge and keep Penn State from getting to Bo Nix.

The Nittany Lions are led by James Franklin, who will be entering his 11th season as a head coach and his eighth with Penn State. As an assistant, Franklin was the tight ends coach at Washington State in 1998, the wide receivers coach at Idaho in 1999, the same position at Maryland from 2000-2004, before being hired for the same position at the Green Bay Packers. 

After a lone season in the NFL, Franklin became the offensive coordinator at Kansas State from 2006-2007 before being hired for the same position at Maryland until 2010. Franklin began his head coaching career at Vanderbilt in 2011 where he led the Commodores to a 24-15 record and two bowl wins over the course of three years. In 2014, he was hired as the head coach of Penn State. Since then, he has led the Nittany Lions to a 60-28 record as well as Pinstripe, Fiesta, and Cotton Bowl wins. 

Penn State will be a great litmus test for the Tigers early on in the season. The Tigers will begin SEC play only two weeks later, so what they learn from facing the Nittany Lions will be vitally important moving forward the rest of the season. 

Penn State is easily Auburn’s toughest out-of-conference foe, and it will be important for Auburn to escape the early season matchup with a win to build confidence heading into the meat of the season. 

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