Final thoughts from Penn State's 44-13 win over Ball State, which set up a rare Big Ten-SEC game at Beaver Stadium this week.
Jesse Luketa: 'I got next'
Jesse Luketa's best friend is former Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who made his NFL debut with the Dallas Cowboys last week. Luketa attended the NFL draft earlier this year and was in the room when Parsons answered Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' call.
"The first thing that came to my mind is, 'I got next,'" Luketa said after Penn State's 44-13 win over Ball State. "And [Parsons] told me the same thing."
Luketa, a veteran senior on Penn State's defense, has breathed new life into his career this season. Luketa shifted primarily to defensive end, though he still trains at linebacker. That versatility proved valuable against Ball State, as Luketa started at middle linebacker in place of Ellis Brooks (who was serving his targeting suspension).
Luketa made four tackles and, upon returning to end in the second half, made a play Parsons never did in his electric Penn State career: an interception. Luketa made an athletic grab of a Drew Plitt pass, which he returned 16 yards for a touchdown.
The interception was Luketa's first and also the first pick-6 for Penn State since John Reid's vs. Buffalo in 2019. Parsons noticed.
Further, it was part of a unique Penn State stat line: Two Nittany Lions from Canada scored in the game (Luketa and tight end Theo Johnson).
Luketa has won praise from coaches and teammates for his offseason move to end after starting 10 games at linebacker the past two seasons. Penn State sought to make room for linebacker Curtis Jacobs in the lineup, and Luketa helped fill a major need with defensive end Adisa Isaac likely out for the season because of an injury.
In addition, Franklin said he "always viewed Luketa like this" and has suggested that Luketa's future likely is better suited at end. Still, the transition wasn't easy.
"I'm super proud of Jesse Luketa," Franklin said. "He didn't really know what his role was going to be coming into the season, but he just trusted the coaches and trusted the program. Right now, he's impacting at defensive end, he's impacting at linebacker, and [he had his] first career interception return for a touchdown. That was big-time."
Luketa has shown strength as a pass-rusher, though he still has some points to tighten, particularly in coverage. But he's growing more comfortable with the cross-training. Asked which position he prefers, Luketa smiled.
"I like both," he said. "I'm a hybrid."
Marquis Wilson shows his versatility
Speaking of cross-training, Marquis Wilson became the first Penn State player to play both offense and defense in the same game since Justin King in 2005. He was thrilled to be in such company.
King, a former Penn State recruiting coordinator, helped to recruit Wilson to Penn State and even gave him a tour of campus. King, a top-ranked recruit of Penn State's 2005 team, played both positions before shifting full-time to cornerback. Wilson, who began his career at cornerback, had more convincing to do.
"Since being recruited, I always told them I want to play offense," Wilson said Saturday. "And I’ve always been like a little birdie in their ear. ... I guess coach Franklin heard me, and we had a conversation about it. I thought he was joking. I planted the seed, and it finally grew."
Wilson made his first career reception (for 3 yards) and also made two tackles on defense. He scolded himself for getting too close to the sideline on the reception, which limited his potential for extra yardage.
Wilson is one of those players who finds the ball, something Franklin often notes when discussing him as a two-way player. Wilson forced three fumbles as a freshman in 2019, when he also made an interception. And he broke up two passes last season.
With Tariq Castro-Fields returning for another season, and freshman cornerback Kalen King climbing the depth chart in training camp, Wilson had options. Now, he's using them.
"It's a great challenge, and obviously I love it," Wilson said. "It makes me better as a player, I'm more focused and I can tap into another level to see how far I can go."
Clifford didn't throw a lot of deep passes vs. Ball State and wasn't consistent on those that he threw. According to Sports Info Solutions, Clifford was 1 for 5 on passes of 20 yards or longer. SIS graded two of those throws as "catchable." On the season, Clifford is 4-for-11 on throws of 20+.
Franklin often laments not being able to get his No. 2 quarterback into the game, either sooner or at all. He did so again Saturday regarding Ta'Quan Roberson. Penn State sought to get Roberson into the game midway through the fourth quarter with a 37-6 lead. But Ball State changed Franklin's plans, going on a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive against the Lions' third-team defense. Roberson ultimately entered with 6:54 remaining and later threw his first career touchdown pass on his first career completion.
Any reaction to Ball State calling two timeouts in the last 6 seconds with a chance to score? "I have no problem with how they managed the game at the end," Franklin said. The Cardinals sought a teaching moment, just as Franklin did with Roberson.
By the Numbers
105,323: The announced attendance, highest for a home-opener at Beaver Stadium since 2008.
5,029: Career passing yards for Clifford, who became the 10th Penn State quarterback to top 5,000.
32: Penn State first downs, tied for second under Franklin.
31: Consecutive games with a reception for Jahan Dotson.
17: Consecutive non-conference wins for Penn State.