Penn State-Auburn Prediction: Some Distractions, Lots of Defense

Auburn is visiting a Big Ten team for the first time since 1931. A menacing Penn State defense awaits.
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James Franklin met some uninvited distractions this week on his way to preparing Penn State for a compelling game Saturday night against Auburn.

Certainly, Auburn first-year coach Bryan Harsin isn't upset that Franklin had to devote time to discuss the USC job speculation with his staff, players and recruits — time he would have preferred to spend studying the huge collection of game film his video staff compiled regarding Auburn.

But it's all fair game in college football, where every edge is exploited. Will it matter? By Saturday night, probably not. In fact, the week might galvanize the Lions behind their coach in the return of the White Out after a year's sabbatical.

No. 10 Penn State (2-0) vs. No. 22 Auburn (2-0)

  • When: 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday
  • Where: Beaver Stadium
  • TV: ABC
  • Streaming: fuboTV
  • Betting Line: Penn State is a 5-point favorite, per SISportsbook

How is Penn State Scouting Auburn

This is a fascinating byproduct of coaching changes: What film do you study? Harsin, Auburn's first-year head coach, was at Boise State the past seven years. His offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, was at South Carolina and, before that, Colorado State and Georgia. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason was at Vanderbilt, where he succeeded Franklin as head coach. That's a lot of history to study.

Meanwhile, Auburn's first two games showed merely that it played two overmatches opponents. The Tigers outscored Akron and Alabama State by a combined total of 122-10. So Auburn leads the FBS in scoring average (61 points per game). But what does it mean to have beaten an FBS team with one win in three years (Akron) and an FCS team?

That just made Penn State stretch its film study further. Thus, Franklin's covering a lot of bases.

"It makes it a little bit challenging on tape to evaluate," Franklin said. "With a new head coach and new coordinators, are we watching Boise State film, Vanderbilt film, Georgia film, Colorado State film, South Carolina film? What do you watch to get enough examples of formations of situational football and scenarios that you want to get covered? You just don't have a whole lot to work with."

What about Franklin's 'distractions'?

So that USC firing didn't help Franklin this week. He's used to his name landing on coaching lists ("It happens every single year," Franklin said Wednesday) but not in Week 3 before playing Auburn.

Franklin usually spends his media sessions in these weeks admiring the White Out and sharing its value with recruits — not answering questions about why he won't just say no to USC.

"I have, I have," Franklin said. "But I've also found and tracked this over time that, really no matter what you say, people aren’t happy with [it]. So I decided I'm going to handle this internally."

Maybe it's nothing, but the line at SISportsbook fell a point (to Penn State -5) since Tuesday. So evidently, some people feel the distraction is tangible.

Penn State Players to Watch

Keyvone Lee: Running backs Lee and Noah Cain will be instrumental in a backfield that should expect plenty of work and punishment. Lee has turned a few 2-yard losses into 5-yards losses this season with some extended cutbacks. But he also has rushed for 44 (of his 53) yards after contact and is learning more and more how to make defenders miss.

PJ Mustipher: The second-year defensive tackle has handled his role expertly: occupy linemen, don't allow them to clear running lanes and give the linebackers room to clean up tackles. The Lions will need that against Auburn's run game.

Eric Wilson: A unique story on Penn State's offensive line, Wilson could have been on the other sideline Saturday. The Harvard transfer initially committed to Auburn last year but reconsidered over the winter and chose Penn State. And he won the starting spot at left guard despite not playing in 2020 and arriving on campus in May.

Auburn Players to Watch

Tank Bigsby: Auburn has two exciting backs in Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter, who average a combined 12.1 yards per carry. Bigsby, the starter, has generated an astonishing 140 of his 241 rushing yards after contact, according to analytics firm Sports Info Solutions. And Hunter, a freshman, has the nation's longest run this season, a 94-yarder for a TD vs. Alabama State. The duo drives Auburn's offense.

T.D. Moultry: The defensive end has four tackles for loss (and 2.5 sacks) in two games and is the edge rusher about whom Penn State has to worry.

Bo Nix: Penn State likely will go after the third-year starting quarterback, who gets rattled on the road. Nix has thrown 10 of his 13 career interceptions in road games and is facing his first truly hostile road environment since a 2019 visit to LSU, where he completed 43 percent of his passes.

Auburn running back Tank Bigsby (Jake Crandall/Montgomery Advertiser)

Auburn running back Tank Bigsby (Jake Crandall/Montgomery Advertiser)

Five Things You Should Know

1. Penn State is 23-23 all-time vs. current members of the SEC. The Lions have winning records against LSU (2-0), Missouri (3-1), South Carolina (2-0), Tennessee (3-2) and Texas A&M (3-1). They're 1-1 vs. Auburn.

2. Penn State's honorary captain will be former player Adam Taliaferro, who suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury in 2000. Though doctors gave him a 5 percent chance to walk again, Taliaferro ran onto the Beaver Stadium field for Penn State's home opener in 2001.

3. Auburn is playing just its third regular-season road game vs. the Big Ten. The last was a 7-7 tie at Wisconsin in 1931.

4. Penn State has won 17 consecutive non-conference games dating to 2013.

5. The Auburn Radio Network's sideline reporter is Ronnie Brown, the former running back who rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns in Auburn's 13-9 win over Penn State in the 2003 Capital One Bowl.

Prediction

The quarterbacks are unlikely to determine this game's outcome, unless they do so via turnovers. And that's where Penn State should train its focus. Nix is a road-game turnover threat, which means the Lions can stress him by taking the lead and forcing Auburn to throw. Sean Clifford hasn't turned over the ball yet this season, and Penn State likely wins if he does that again.

The defenses will dictate tone, and Penn State's is more tested through two games. Expect breakout performances from Penn State's linebacker trio of Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith and Curtis Jacobs in a frenzied Beaver Stadium.

Penn State 20-13

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