By PAT ROTHDEUTSCH
There were a ton of superlatives showered on the Penn State Nittany Lions after the convincing 41-12 triumph over Auburn on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and rightly so.
The bottom line, however, is that the season moves on and Penn State is now 3-0 heading into its final non-league contest before facing the rest of a very challenging Big Ten schedule.
The numbers out of Alabama were impressive. PSU ran for 245 yards and five touchdowns, passed for 232 yards, didn’t turn the ball over and had four game-changing takeaways that stymied the Tigers’ offense at important junctures in the game.
Freshman running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen combined to run for 176 yards and four touchdowns, while sixth-year quarterback Sean Clifford completed 14 of 19 passes for 178 yards and ran for a seven-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Auburn did throw for 296 yards, but the fear that its running game would push the Nittany Lions around did not materialize. Its two top runners, Tank Bigsby and Robby Ashford, were held to a total of just 68 yards and no scores.
And the aggressive Penn State defense gave up just one touchdown, recovered two fumbles, intercepted two passes, recorded six sacks and constantly harassed both of the Tiger quarterbacks.
Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown himself had five tackles, one sack, a forced fumble and an interception and led a defense that recorded 11 tackles for loss.
“The story of the game was the turnover battle,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “Four turnovers to zero. That had a huge factor in the game when you talk about time of possession and field position.
“Overall, there hasn’t been too many Big Ten teams to come on the road and get a win in the SEC. So we’re very proud of that.
“I also think we’ve had a very challenging schedule to open the season. On the road in a Big Ten game, then a home game and then on the road again,” Franklin continued. “So proud of our guys. We will enjoy this win for a couple of hours and then get back to work tomorrow.”
This week, the Lions will return home to face the 1-2 Central Michigan Chippewas.
Central Michigan began its season with losses to Oklahoma State, 58-44, and South Alabama, 38-24, but last week recovered with a 41-0 victory over Bucknell in Michigan.
The Chippewas overwhelmed Bucknell in the second half, breaking up a close 14-7 game with two touchdowns in the third quarter and then three more in the fourth to close out their first win.
Quarterback Daniel Richardson completed 15 of 32 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, and the running game, with Lew Nichols’ 170 yards and two touchdowns, gained a total of 291 yards.
For the season, Richardson is 73-for-127 for 889 yards and seven touchdowns (296 per game), while Nichols gained 289 yards and ran for five touchdowns. The top receivers are Jalen McGaughy (200 yds, 2 TDs) and Joel Wilson (165 yds, 2 TDs). In all, the Chippewas averaged 36 points and 474 total yards per game. Defensively, Central Michigan has given up a total of 96 points and an average of 402 yards per game — with an average of 298 yards and seven total touchdowns through the air. It has recorded six sacks for 35 yards, intercepted two passes, and recovered a fumble.
The Chips were 9-4 last season and they beat Washington State, 24-21, in the Sun Bowl, so they have a history of success in the MAC and beyond, and they seem to be improving after their initial two losses.
For Penn State, this will be a welcome home game after beginning the season with two of three games on the road at very difficult venues.
However, given the upsets so far this season around the country and the high number of fifth- and sixth-year players out there, nothing about it looks particularly easy. Franklin, as usual, talked about things his team needs to improve, and in this game there will be things to look for.
If Penn State can sustain the running attack it unveiled in Weeks 2 and 3, it will portend well on Saturday and for the rest of the season.
Same goes for creating turnovers. There’s little doubt that Penn State’s interceptions and forced fumbles changed the momentum of the Auburn game. And along with that, of course, the Lions will have to avoid turnovers themselves.
Singleton, Allen and the other freshmen will no longer surprise anyone, and their progress will be closely watched around the conference. And any team that hasn’t noticed Mitchell Tinsley, Parker Washington, Brenton Strange, KeAndre Lambert-Smith and the rest of the PSU receivers is not scouting very well.
All told, the Lions right now are on an upward (and very interesting) trajectory, and they will hear all week that this is not a good time to take a step backwards.
Kickoff is at noon.