Observations: Penn State 41, Auburn 12
The Tigers had an opportunity to reset things Saturday. Instead, they got dominated on both sides of the ball and suffered their worst home loss since 2012.
RB Tank Bigsby (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Saturday was a lot of opportunities stacked into one big opportunity for Auburn football.
The first big game of 2022 was a chance to reset some of the vibes surrounding the program after last year’s five-game losing skid and subsequent offseason of challenges. It was an opportunity for the Tigers’ offense and defense to build needed momentum for the SEC slate. Auburn turned it into one of the biggest recruiting weekends on its calendar.
The stage was set.
And then Auburn suffered its biggest home loss since the infamous 2012 season.
A year after losing by eight on the road at Penn State, Auburn lost by 29 — a resounding 41-12 defeat — to that same team on Saturday afternoon inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. It was the latest and perhaps biggest sign that things are not heading in the right direction under Bryan Harsin, as the Tigers were three touchdowns worse to the same opponent in a home game in Year 2.
“Football's a matter of fact,” Harsin said. “You've got to do your job. You've got to be in the right position. You've got to execute the plays that we have out there, and we've got to be better at that. That's gotta start on Sundays. That goes all the way through the week. That's what we do as coaches — we get our guys prepared.
“We didn't have them prepared well enough tonight to go out there and play the game that we wanted to.”
Missing opportunities became the story of the day. Auburn had four drives inside the Penn State red zone and came away with a grand total of six points. Penn State had five drives inside the Auburn red zone and averaged more than six points per trip.
The doubts that built up after an average Week 1 victory over FCS team Mercer and a way-too-close Week 2 win over Group of Five foe San Jose State stood out even more against a ranked Power 5 opponent.
Auburn’s offensive line allowed a high rate of pressure and struggled in the run game. The pass defense gave up chunks of yardage downfield. The passing game was inconsistent, no matter who the quarterback was. The turnovers were even worse, as the Tigers doubled their giveaways from the first two games and still didn’t create a takeaway of their own.
Combine those issues with a few new ones that popped up against quality competition, and it’s a recipe for an embarrassing loss. It’s just one loss on the schedule, and it’s a non-conference one at that.
But when a lot of missed opportunities start piling up, the reaction can go from “oh, shoot” to “oh, no” rather quickly.
Here are five Observations from Auburn’s 41-12 home loss to Penn State, along with some Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Day.
Finish your drives
Total yardage can be very deceiving. Case in point: Auburn only had 62 fewer yards than Penn State on Saturday. But Auburn only had one touchdown to Penn State’s five.
The biggest difference Saturday was that Penn State had the confidence to run the ball in the red zone and score points. It started with quarterback Sean Clifford — who got absolutely wrecked by Owen Pappoe and then stopped on a sneak on the first drive of the game — weaving his way through for an 8-yard touchdown on a draw play in the first quarter.
Then it continued with the one-two punch of former 5-star Nick Singleton and high 4-star Kaytron Allen, a pair of true freshmen, who combined for 176 yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries. Singleton had two runs of 50-plus yards in the second half, but he was effective in the red zone from the very beginning, along with Allen.
“They ran the ball well in the red zone,” Harsin said. “And I thought they were physical in the red zone. when they ran it. We tried to be down there as well. We tried to run the football and do those same things. … I think they had a couple plays that got them down there quickly in the pass game. And then they're not really having to drive and put together a 12-play drive, it was more four or five plays. And they were able to be physical down there in the red zone when they did that.”
Last season, Clifford picked apart the Auburn pass defense while Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter kept the Tigers competitive in Happy Valley with the ground game.
On Saturday, Bigsby and Hunter touched the ball a combined three times in the red zone for a total of two yards. On their other seven plays in the red zone, the Tigers went 2-4 through the air for 7 yards, gave up a sack and had two quarterback keepers go for a combined 4 yards.
The Tigers had zero faith in their rushing attack when they were within striking distance. Hunter’s touchdown, the only one of the game for Auburn, came in the fourth quarter on a swing pass from 22 yards out. In the red zone, the Tigers settled for two field goals, threw a bad interception and had a turnover on downs.
“I mean, they brough a lot of blitzes, but the middle of the field was open, mostly,” tight end John Samuel Shenker said. “We just, you know, we didn’t execute the plays that were called, really.”
Auburn’s defense made its fair share of mistakes in the red zone, mainly when it came to fitting the touchdown runs from Singleton, Allen and Clifford. When the Tigers finally held Penn State to a late field goal, the game was already well in hand.
The lack of red-zone execution on both sides of the ball doomed Auburn, and it turned a game that was separated by just one point when Penn State started a drive with 6:52 left in the second quarter to one that had a 25-point gap by the end of the third quarter.
Moving the ball between the 20s is great, but this sport is about who finishes drives and who doesn’t.