No. 11 Penn State scored on its first three possessions, and defensive end Jesse Luketa returned an interception for a touchdown, in rolling past Ball State 44-13 Saturday before a crowd of 105,323 at Beaver Stadium.
Welcoming fans back for the first time since 2019, Penn State reveled in a day that included the return of tailgating, the run game and the quarterback sneak. Coach James Franklin bounced into Beaver Stadium and took his ritual lap around the field with his daughters, Shola and Addision, and a handful of fans who entered early.
From there, the Lions (2-0) played a crisper and more varied offensive game, and the defense produced its first pick-6 since 2019 against Buffalo (also a MAC team).
The victory set the stage for a unique 'Whiteout' game on Sept. 18. The Lions will host Auburn, which has won its first two games (over Akron and Alabama State) by a combined score of 122-10. Auburn is making its first appearance at Beaver Stadium and playing its first game in the Northeast since a 2001 visit to Syracuse.
Here's the breakdown of Penn State's sixth straight victory.
A varied offense strikes quickly
Quarterback Sean Clifford (21 for 29, 230 yards, one touchdown) led a sharp and varied offense early, as the Lions scored touchdowns on their first two series. Penn State ran formations with three tight ends, two running backs and plenty of tempo.
The Lions rotated three running backs through the offense, with Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee and Devyn Ford sharing the workload. Cain scored the first touchdown, while Lee looked the most agile, particularly when he had open space. Cain and Lee combined for 137 yards, with Lee averaging 8.5 per carry.
In addition, Penn State stunned fans with the return of the quarterback sneak, which it had not used since the Bill O'Brien-Christian Hackenberg era. Clifford ran a pair of sneaks in the first quarter, the second of which he turned into a 1-yard touchdown.
Clifford conducted the offense more skillfully than he did early against Wisconsin, completing eight consecutive passes during his best stretch. He also beat Ball State on the ground, taking advantage of open running lanes to gain 66 yards on 11 carries. That included a 43-yard carry in the fourth quarter, on which Clifford clearly looked to score.
The Lions produce two more interceptions
Penn State makes pick-6s routine against the MAC. Two years ago, former cornerback John Reid returned an interception for a touchdown against Buffalo. That was Penn State's last pick-6 until Saturday.
Defensive end Jesse Luketa, who played middle linebacker in the first half, returned a 16-yard interception for a third-quarter interception that gave the Lions a 31-6 lead. Two possessions later, cornerback Daequan Hardy intercepted Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt for the game's second turnover.
Penn State has produced four interceptions in its first two games, equaling its total during the nine-game 2020 season.
Jahan Dotson keeps his scoring streak alive
The Penn State receiver scored a touchdown in his fourth consecutive game dating to 2020, a 25-yarder on which he showcased his lively footwork. Dotson cut inside on a rudimentary receiver screen to score his second touchdown of the season.
Franklin last week said his offense needed to involve Dotson earlier, and by doing so freed space for teammates. Clifford completed passes to 10 players, with Marquis Wilson catching his first career pass. Wilson also played cornerback, becoming Penn State’s first two-way player since Justin King, who was involved in his recruiting.
On Friday, former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley returned to Whitehall (Pa.) High for a number-retiring ceremony, two days before the New York Giants' season-opener. Barkley raved about Dotson, who played at nearby Nazareth High.
About that red-zone offense
Fans looking for things to concern them should consider Penn State's red-zone offense in the second half. The Lions drove inside Ball State's 10-yard line on back-to-back possessions but settled for a pair of short Jordan Stout field goals. That's noteworthy against a defense that it shredded for nearly 500 yards of total offense.
The Lions lost a player to targeting for the second straight game. Reserve safety Tyler Rudolph was penalized in the fourth quarter and will miss the first half against Auburn. Linebacker Ellis Brooks, who was ejected for targeting at Wisconsin, returned in the second half Saturday.
Backup quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson played for the first time since 2019, and his introduction was a bit rough. Roberson's first series included an incomplete pass and a sack. But it got better. Roberson's first career completion went for a 23-yard touchdown to tight end Theo Johnson.
The Lions shuffled their starting offensive line late in the game, swapping center Mike Miranda and guard Juice Scruggs. Bryce Effner moved into the right-guard position where Eric Wilson started.
Penn State rotated players at safety, including Rudolph and Jonathan Sutherland, ostensibly to limit starters Jaquan Brisker and Ji'Ayir Brown, who were on the field plenty against Wisconsin.
Penn State's starting lineup included three transfer players: defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (Temple), tackle Derrick Tangelo (Duke) and Wilson (Harvard).
The victory was Penn State's 300th at Beaver Stadium.