By TRAVIS JOHNSON, Associated Press
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Sean Clifford’s confidence has grown with each play this fall, and Penn State’s quarterback is about to get a big ego boost.
It’ll come from the more than 107,000 fans who’ll pack Beaver Stadium on Saturday night for a rare Big Ten-SEC regular-season showdown between the No. 10 Nittany Lions (2-0) and No. 22 Auburn (2-0).
When Clifford runs through the tunnel, he and his teammates will be greeted by the masses — clad in white for the program-dubbed Whiteout — for the first time since a 2019 win against Michigan.
“You can’t watch the Whiteout on TV and say that you’ve seen the Whiteout,” Clifford said. “You have to be here to experience it. It’s one of those experience that is jaw-dropping, inspiring, just a sense of community that you really can’t feel anywhere else.”
It’s a feeling the Nittany Lions missed when COVID-19 restrictions forced them to play in an empty stadium last year. It’s a scene the Tigers are looking forward to as well.
No Auburn squad has played a road Big Ten game in nine decades.
“That should be something that we all embrace and want to be a part of,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. “And if you’re a guy that is worried about that, or shying away, don’t get on the plane. We’ll take somebody else. We’ll take the guys that have the mind-set to go play and do a job in this game and we’ll compete with them.”
The Tigers will bring an offense that steamrolled their first two non-Power 5 opponents and a defense that hasn’t been tested yet. The Nittany Lions figure to do so.
After opening with a defense-fueled road win at Wisconsin, Penn State’s offense did more, and showed glimpses of potential in last week’s win over Ball State.
Clifford is coming off one of his better recent games, having completed 21 of 29 passes for 230 yards with two total touchdowns. He hit 10 different receivers last week, fulfilling his preseason certitude that he’d have plenty of receivers to work with.
Penn State coach James Franklin wants his offense to be more explosive, however.
“I think for where we are in the season, if we just continue to get better and continue to take strides in really every area, running the ball, protection, explosive plays, I think we’ll like where we are,” Franklin said.
PROTECT THE BALL
Clifford’s primary focus under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has been limiting turnovers.
Penn State’s 0-5 run to start last season was littered with interceptions and fumbles, and the Nittany Lions finished with a minus-8 turnover margin.
Penn State has not turned the ball over yet this season and Clifford hasn’t thrown an interception in 115 attempts dating to last season.
“I think that finding, getting through progressions faster, being smarter with the football, checking the ball down when I need to, finding the escape routes, just being a smarter football player,” Clifford said. “I feel extremely confident and extremely experienced when it comes to seeing looks, recognizing coverages and then making plays in the short amount of time that I have in the pocket.”
Auburn has already scored 122 points to lead the nation and racked up 1,151 yards. Most of the Tigers’ power comes from the run game where both Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter have eclipsed 100 rushing yards in each game so far.
Bigsby, Southeastern Conference freshman of the year in 2020, has 241 yards on just 24 carries while Hunter, a freshman, has 257 and set a school record with a 94-yard touchdown run against Alabama State last week.
“They just want to set their tempo off of the run game like a lot of teams do and try to be physical,” Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks said. “They’re a physical bunch, and we’ve got a clear challenge in front of us this week.”
If the game settles into a defensive battle for field position, Franklin will be happy to deploy his do-it-all specialist Jordan Stout.
Stout, who’s punted and handled all field goals and kickoffs this season, is currently fifth in the country with a 53.1 yards per punt average, nearly 12 yards more than he averaged last year.
Auburn hasn’t beaten a top 10 team on the road since 2014. The Tigers have lost nine straight in that scenario since a 35-31 win at No. 7 Mississippi.