Rudel: Lions star in night to remember
UNIVERSITY PARK – It’s difficult for whiteout games to equal all the accompanying hype, but this sure did.
In one of the more memorable games in Beaver Stadium history, fueled by a loud, picturesque backdrop, the No. 10 Nittany Lions improved to 3-0 by holding off Auburn for a 28-20 victory before 109,958 Saturday night.
Penn State provided a showcase of the team it is building for a run at a Big Ten championship and beyond as its passing game was spectacular, its defense tough enough to close out the game and its punter a frontrunner for early All-American consideration.
“I think we’ve got a tough-minded football team,” James Franklin said in an understatement. “We’re finding different ways to win.”
The Lions also showed a determination and resiliency to overcome horrific officiating that, an hour after the conclusion, moved the Southeastern Conference to acknowledge that its crew actually lost track of the downs in the first half, despite Penn State’s pleadings.
It was, truly, a Nittany Lion effort with everything. Such as:
• Sean Clifford had a career-high in completions with a 28-for-32 effort for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He found Jahan Dotson 10 times for 78 yards and a leaping TD to go with two other gems.
• The offensive ingenuity shown by new coordinator Mike Yurcich has justified James Franklin’s OC change after just one year, a cold move that is paying off.
• Penn State’s goal-line offense combined the power of three tight ends – no fullback, but there might as well have been – with two of them scoring from close range.
• The offensive line did not allow a sack.
• And while the defense, with a 21-10 lead, didn’t initially deliver a knockout punch, allowing Auburn to drive 75 yards mainly on the ground to pull within 21-17 and 21-20, it stood tall in the end with the Tigers twice threatening to tie the game in the waning minutes.
“Our defense is playing at a championship level,” Franklin said. “We’re making critical plays when it matters most.”
• Jordan Stout punted four times for a 50-yard average, has averaged 50 yards per punt in all three games and has boomed 23 straight touchbacks. He’s looking more like Ray Guy than Ray Guy.
“We’ve got a damn good punter,” Franklin said.
Yurcich to this point looks like a home-run hire. Yes, he missed on a couple plays (short yardage, third-down reverse to Dotson, the second try to Tyler Warren), but he has brought an up-tempo pace to the offense and combined it with diversity (no-huddle, shotgun, under-center) that is using the Lions’ bevy of weapons.
Saturday saw reverses, a Dotson pass, a fake punt (even if it didn’t work) and a tight end exhibition that produced 130 yards on six catches to three different targets and two scores.
Most of all, Yurcich has the players believing.
“The way we use tempo, it throws teams off and keeps teams off balance,” Dotson, who is playing himself into the elite category of the Lions’ top receivers over the past several years. “And it’s a great weapon for us. Coach Yurcich, I said at the beginning of the season, he’s a mastermind, and I truly believe that he has an answer for every single thing that a defense throws at us. It’s just great to have a guy like that.”
That confidence has played well with a resolve born out of last year’s season to forget – except for its lessons.
Temple transfer defensive end Arnold Ebiketie noticed when he arrived on campus.
“I had a sense that everyone had a chip on their shoulder,” he said.
Winning has cured that and when he was standing in the tunnel to take the field Saturday night, Ebiketie couldn’t help but savor the moment of maybe the most unique atmosphere in all of sports.
“I felt so blessed,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘What did I do to deserve this?”
There’s a whole lot of season left with rugged tests galore, particularly on the road, but the Nittany Lions’ first three weeks could not have gone better as beating two ranked teams in its first three weeks (Wisconsin and Auburn) is a Penn State first.
“Obviously being tested early in the season like this, I think is going to be helpful,” Franklin said. “We are just going to have to build on it from there. But I’m pleased with where our football team is right now.”
He should be.