Penn State vs. Auburn score, takeaways: No. 22 Nittany Lions dominate, raising more questions for Bryan Harsin

Staff report

No. 22 Penn State was relentless in crushing Auburn 41-12 at Jordan-Hare Stadium as the Nittany Lions took control in the second half and never let up. The game was not only as lopsided as the final score seemed, it was the first time Auburn lost a home game by 28 points or more since 2012

The Tigers have nobody to blame but themselves. Penn State took care of its business, while Auburn refused to do its job in key areas. Across five red-zone possessions, the Nittany Lions scored four touchdowns before settling for a field goal on their fifth try with the game well in hand. Meanwhile, Auburn reached the red zone four times but didn’t score a single touchdown when it got there. Instead, it settled for two field goals and threw an interception on a third opportunity. Its final red-zone possession resulted in a turnover on downs in the final minute.

Turnovers also played a significant role in Penn State’s dominance. The Nittany Lions were spotless with ball protection, while Auburn gave it up four times. Football is a complicated game, but sometimes it’s straightforward, which was the case here. Penn State finished drives and took care of the football. Auburn did not.

The win improves Penn State to 3-0 on the season and should help it climb a few more spots in the top 25 polls. Auburn falls to 2-1 after missing out on the chance to exact revenge for last season’s 28-20 loss in State College, Pennsylvania.

Let’s take a look at four key takeaways from the game.

1. A mobile Sean Clifford is a good Sean Clifford: In Penn State’s season-opener against Purdue, Clifford was wearing a knee brace on his left knee and took a hit to the leg in the first half. For the rest of the night, he was essentially a statue in the pocket.  Clifford is not a good enough passer, nor is Penn State’s offensive line strong enough for the Nittany Lions offense to thrive that way. Penn State won the game, but it was ugly.

It’s no surprise how much better the Nittany Lions’ offense looked against the Tigers as Clifford was able to move as a scrambler and on rollouts. When he can buy time in the pocket to allow receivers to get open or find easy yards with his legs, Penn State becomes a lot more difficult to defend. Clifford was a triple threat on Saturday. He threw for 178 yards, rushed for a touchdown and even caught a 25-yard pass that led to another score.

2. The Nittany Lions have an impressive duo of young rushers: It’s been a few years since Penn State had game-changers at the running back position, and now it might have two or three. Five-star freshman Nick Singleton balled out against Auburn, picking up 124 yards on only 10 carries. He had a 54-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, his second gain of at least 50 yards in the game. During the third quarter, Singleton was responsible for every inch PSU picked up on a three-play, 58-yard scoring drive, finishing with a 1-yard touchdown run.

He didn’t carry the load alone. Kaytron Allen had two rushing touchdowns and finished with 52 yards on nine carries. When you combine a healthy Clifford with an effective run game, the Penn State offense will be a lot more difficult to stop in Big Ten play. That should help Penn State avoid the kind of collapse it suffered during the second half of the 2021 season.

3. Auburn isn’t going anywhere with its quarterback situation: To be fair, Auburn’s QBs aren’t getting much help from their offensive line. Penn State finished with 11 tackles for loss and six sacks. Still, it’s much easier for defenses to wreak havoc in your backfield when they do not fear your passing attack. T.J. Finley completed only 11 of 19 passes for 152 yards with an interception. Robby Ashford replaced him in the third quarter and completed 10 of 19 passes for 144 yards, but nearly half those yards came in garbage time on the final possession of the game.

Neither showed the ability to consistently stretch defenses vertically, making it a lot more difficult for the Auburn offense to find space to work with. Considering the level of defenses the Tigers will face once SEC play begins, Saturday’s performance was ominous. You have to wonder if Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada could join the fray before long.

4. The schedule doesn’t get any easier: September was supposed to be the easy part of the schedule for Auburn. Yes, it got Penn State, but at least the game was at home. Other than that, the Tigers should’ve cruised against Mercer and San Jose State before finishing the month against Missouri. Instead, Auburn won its first two games but looked mediocre in its 24-16 win over San Jose State, and now it suffered a blowout loss to Penn State.

Who knows what happens next week against Missouri? October features games against LSU, Georgia, Ole Miss and Arkansas. November is a little nicer, but only a little. It’s fair to wonder how the team we saw against Penn State figures out a way to win six games and get to a bowl game.

And if that’s the case, what are Auburn coach Bryan Harsin’s chances of returning in 2023? What are the chances he finishes this season? You can’t ignore what nearly happened during the offseason nor that the athletic director who hired Harsin has moved on. Harsin is on one of the hottest seats in the country, and this was a win that would’ve gone a long way to buying him some time. Hell, a competitive loss may have been enough to inspire some confidence. If Auburn loses to Missouri next week, will he still be there for the Georgia game?

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