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No. 10 Penn State holds on, beats No. 22 Auburn 28-20 in thriller

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No. 22 Auburn gave No. 10 Penn State everything it could handle, but the Nittany Lions were able to send the White Out crowd home happy in the end.

Penn State, behind a strong performance from quarterback Sean Clifford and a few timely defensive stops down the stretch, improved to 3-0 with a 28-20 victory over the Tigers.

Auburn, with the aid of some shaky officiating, was up to the task early and had a 10-7 lead for much of the second quarter. But Penn State took a 14-10 lead on a Clifford touchdown pass to Brenton Strange just before halftime, giving PSU a 14-10 lead it would never relinquish.

There were some close calls, however.

With the lead 21-17, Penn State tried a fake punt on fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 43. Penn State looked like it had gained enough ground for a first down, but it seemed like the whistle was blown due to forward progress and PSU came up short.

On the ensuing drive, Auburn curiously sent the field goal unit out instead of trying to get a fourth-and-1 at the PSU 26. The 43-yard boot from Anders Carlson cut Penn State’s lead to 21-20.

That was as close as Auburn would get.

Penn State extended its lead to 28-20 on the ensuing drive, setting up for a dramatic finish. Later in the fourth, Auburn drove the ball all the way to the Penn State 2-yard line. On fourth-and-goal, Auburn dialed up a fade route but Kobe Hudson got tangled up with a PSU defender and the pass fell incomplete.

From there, Penn State’s offense was able to drain most of the clock. Auburn had just one timeout remaining, and eventually did regain possession from its own 38 with 38 seconds to go. The Penn State defense got the stop it needed and held on for a thrilling victory.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes during an NCAA college football game against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes during an NCAA college football game against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

What does this mean for Penn State?

On the heels of such a disastrous start to the 2020 season, Penn State starting 3-0 with wins over Wisconsin and Auburn is pretty remarkable.

A big part of PSU’s struggles last year fell on the shoulders of Clifford, who was inaccurate and turnover prone. So far this season, Clifford has played very well. He did throw an interception after taking a big hit in the final minute of the first half, but that was the lone blemish on an excellent outing.

Clifford finished the night 28-of-32 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Penn State couldn’t get much going on the ground against Auburn’s physical defense. But offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich found ways to get guys like Jahan Dotson, Brenton Strange and Parker Washington open. And Clifford was able to hit them.

And to Yurcich’s credit, he fit in a perfectly-called run on the third-and-goal play that extended the PSU lead to 28-20 with 10:48 remaining. The Auburn defense was so focused on PSU’s pass-catchers that Noah Cain was able to score from three yards out.

The defense was excellent, too. Auburn had success running the ball, but Nix was limited to just 185 passing yards on 21-of-37 attempts. There were no big plays to be had, and Auburn had to earn every yard it got, averaging only 4.6 yards per play.

The schedule takes a break next week when Villanova visits. From there, a top 10 PSU team will get back to Big Ten play with a visit from Indiana and a trip to Iowa City on Oct. 9. 

It’s very possible both the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes are undefeated when that game rolls around. And with Ohio State struggling in the early going, that's a game that could have serious implications — beyond just the conference standings.