No. 10 Penn State held on late to defeat No. 22 Penn State 28-20 in a thriller Saturday night in Happy Valley. The game saw both teams trade long touchdown drives while dealing with questionable officiating decisions from the SEC crew in what ended up as one of the most entertaining games through three weeks of the 2021 college football season.
The game came down to the final play as Auburn -- down eight with no timeouts -- drove in the final minutes. In the end, Tigers quarterback Bo Nix's heave toward the end zone as time expired was broken up to seal the win for the Nittany Lions and give Penn State its second win over a ranked team already this season.
Penn State QB Sean Clifford had a big night, completing an astounding 28 of 32 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Nix completed 21 of 37 passes for 185 yards as running back Tank Bigsby carried the load for the Auburn offense. Bigsby rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough to get an impressive road win for the Tigers.
Penn State improves to 3-0 after the victory, and with so many shaky performances from teams above it in the college football rankings, PSU is poised to climb in the top 25 polls this week.
Here are my five takeaways from an awesome game in an incredible atmosphere.
1. Clifford quieted a lot of doubters
There have been many critics of the Penn State quarterback, and I should know better than anyone seeing as how I've been one of the most vocal. I've long maintained that this Penn State team is a QB away from being a legitimate contender in the Big Ten and for a College Football Playoff spot. While I'm not quite ready to change that opinion, Clifford put on a spectacular display Saturday night.
His 28 completions on 32 passes were not just dinks and dunks all over the field. Clifford averaged 8.8 yards per attempt and 10 yards per completion. That included a 37-yard connection with tight end Theo Johnson to set up a touchdown in the first quarter and a 40-yard pass to tight end Brenton Strange in the fourth quarter that led to Penn State's final score. The one that would prove to be the game-winner.
If this is the Clifford that shows up every week, there isn't a team in the Big Ten that Penn State cannot beat, and that includes an Ohio State team that looked shaky for the third game in a row.
2. Penn State's rushing attack is concerning
Last week ,Penn State rushed for 240 yards against Ball State on 48 carries, which has helped hide two poor performances. In the season-opener against Wisconsin, the Lions rushed for only 50 yards on 18 carries, averaging 2.8 per touch. On Saturday, Penn State was held to 89 yards rushing on 33 carries (2.7 every tote). And that's with Clifford not being sacked, so those are pure rushing numbers.
While the Nittany Lions offensive line did a good job in pass protection and gave Clifford time, it isn't getting much push up front when it comes to the run game. While Penn State has been able to get away with it through three games, I can't help but believe there's going to be a time when it needs but will be unable to run, and it'll cost PSU a game.
3. Nix was improved but not good enough
While Nix avoided the turnovers that have plagued him in previous road starts, his overall game wasn't impactful enough. He averaged only 5.0 yards per attempt in the passing game and was lucky not to be intercepted for a pick-six at one point. He also threw up a couple of prayers that never gave his receivers a fair shot to come down with the ball.
That said, Nix also did a tremendous job of keeping drives alive. He completed 8 of 11 passes for 100 yards on third downand kept six drives alive. If not for his third-down throws, there's no way Auburn puts together two touchdown drives of 75 yards apiece that lasted 24 plays total. So while it wasn't a great game for Nix, if I'm an Auburn fan, I'm still pretty encouraged by what I've seen from my QB through three games under this new coaching staff.
4. The SEC officials were awful
There's no other way to put it. I try to avoid criticizing officials too much because I make plenty of my own mistakes, so it's hypocritical to hold a missed call or two against a crew when so many things are happening on so many plays. But Saturday night's performance? It was abysmal.
There were bad spots, intentional grounding calls that were and were not made, and of course, the questionable targeting call. Oh, and did I mention that Penn State had to punt on a third down in the first half because the refs mistakenly marked it as a fourth down? Yeah, that actually happened.
Thankfully, Auburn punted on the ensuing drive, so the call did not tilt the game's outcome, but it was still an awful performance. The fact it was an SEC crew would have led to a lot of conspiracy theories had Penn State not come away with the victory. Honestly, there will probably still be plenty of them.
5. Losing streak is over
Penn State had lost five straight games against SEC teams with its last such win coming 19-17 win over LSU in the 2010 Capital One Bowl. Three of the five losses came in bowl games against Florida, Georgia and Kentucky, but the streak also included two regular-season losses against Alabama during the 2010-11 seasons.
On the other side of the coin, Auburn has now lost three straight and four of five against the Big Ten. This is the first of those losses to come in the regular season. The rest have all been in bowl games. It almost makes you wonder how long it'll be before Auburn makes another road trip north to face a Big Ten team.