By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Editor
Penn State was rocking on Saturday night with the whiteout.
While fans at home were worried if they'd even get to see the match-up since Clemson was only in the third quarter, struggling against Georgia Tech, the fans in white had Beaver Stadium rocking more than 30 minutes before kickoff.
Penn State and Auburn each came into this game ranked in the top 25, so it was no wonder that this was a primetime game and the location for College Gameday, but the paths that each team had taken to get there were very different.
The Path To The Game
For Auburn, they were unable to crack the initial top 25 in week one.
Their path into the top 25 was paved by teams erroneously ranked losing as the Tigers had no real challenges before Penn State, taking on Akron and Alabama State at home. Safe to say a loss in either of those would be a season-ender for Auburn.
Meanwhile, following an 0-5 start in 2020, Penn State managed to find themselves back in the top 25 in week one of this season and has done a ton to boost their standings.
The team started on the road at then 12th-ranked, now 18th-ranked Wisconsin. A win against a team that will most likely remain ranked all season is an excellent way to start the season. Their most "cupcake" game was against defending MAC champion Ball State, a team that is still better than either team that Auburn had tee'd up against.
Following a 28-20 win, Penn State is likely to see themselves rise in the rankings once again. Ahead of Penn State in the rankings, Ohio State needed the fourth quarter to finally pull away from Tulsa, Clemson squeaked out a 14-8 win over Georgia Tech, Oklahoma struggled to beat Nebraska 23-16 and Cincinnati needed Indiana to shoot themselves in the foot time after time in order to finally pull away late in the fourth quarter and secure the win.
Also considerations for Penn State's future rankings could be that Auburn is likely to remain or get back to ranked status and that Auburn is not the only team that Penn State beat Saturday night.
Editor's Note: The Nittany Lions have been moved up to sixth in the rankings since this story was written. Auburn fell just one spot to 23 and Wisconsin held at 18.
The SEC Crew
The SEC sent one of their referee crews out for this game, but they must have sent all the guys who never went through grade school.
The crew apparently had never read the rule book and could not complete the simple task of counting to four.
Among the egregious calls that went in Auburn's favor were: an intentional grounding call on a pass 30+ yards downfield (note that this same situation also happened to Bo Nix later in the game and was NOT called), a non-call on actual intentional grounding by Bo Nix (not the situation previously mentioned, actual intentional grounding from the rulebook), a spot two yards shy of where the ball actually got before there was a whistle on fourth and one (turning the ball over on downs on what should have been a first down) and making Penn State punt on fourth down because the crew skipped a down because they couldn't count to four.
The conference even admitted to their inability to count to four after the game.
Amazingly, there are some Auburn fans that thing that a targeting call that went against them proves the crew was against THEM.
You can debate the rule and whether it needs changes all you want, but the rulebook says that that was targeting and that's how it's been called for all teams other than Ohio State and Notre Dame so far this season.
It'd be nice if there was anything that could be done as a consequence of this, but I digress.
On the bright side, for most anyone other than Auburn fans with the blinders on, the referees were blatantly bad for Penn State and the Nittany Lions still managed to win the match-up. All watching had to be impressed, including the massive amount of recruits and recruiting targets in attendance.
The White Out is always a good experience for recruits to have and important to help get those recruits to lean toward or commit to Penn State. Not only was much of the 2022 recruiting class on campus, but Penn State's lone 2023 recruit, Alex Birchmeier, was also on campus with 100s of other recruiting targets for 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
An atmosphere and a win like that will go a long way to getting early recruitments that can help to anchor and build a class. In fact, it was only halftime when Birchmeier gained company in the 2023 class as cornerback Lamont Payne committed to the program.
The Pittsburgh area native represents a top 10 player in PA and the first PA player to commit to any college from the state in the 2023 class.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Penn State get another couple recruitments in the next few weeks as well as land in some top X lists. This may have been the most important recruiting night for the Nittany Lions in recent memory.
Though not necessarily related to the football game, Penn State Basketball also landed a huge committment yesterday in four-star center Kebba Njie.
1000% Commited 🦁🔵 pic.twitter.com/93ikeCdpej— Kebba Njie (@kebba_njie23) September 18, 2021
It's not football related, but I had to give that shoutout to the team Micah Shrewsberry is building in State College right now.
Room To Improve
The even better news is that Penn State walked out with a win and still played far from a perfect game.
Play calling was an issue at points with obvious runs making it impossible for the ground game to get going, particularly against a defensive front like Auburn's. In particular, it seemed like running plays for Jahan Dotson were the only ones where a rush went to the outside for some reason.
Sean Clifford was great going 28/32 with 280 yards and two touchdowns. He did have an interception in one of those misses and that should be cleaned up, but not by him. Something that happened a few times last night was an offensive lineman having tunnel vision and allowing a defender to run right past them. On the play with the interception, Clifford couldn't get anything on the throw because he couldn't step up when the spy came for him. The left guard on that play was blocking no one and still let the spy run right by him. The offensive line took a huge leap forward in this game, but still has some clear room for improvement.
The Penn State defense also missed a couple opportunities for interceptions in this one, most notably the play where Brandon Smith jumped a route and bobbled the ball before dropping it on what would have otherwise been a pick-six. It seems like catching has never been a strong suit of the Penn State defense, but this unit has shown a great ability to recognize plays and make plays on the ball. Keeping that up and improving their catching ability could improve this already dominant defense.