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Penn State gets off to a promising start

The Penn State football team entered this season with an obvious question that needed to be answered.

How would it rebound from a disappointing 2020 campaign? One that saw the Nittany Lions lose their first five games and finished under .500 for the first time since 2004?

That question was somewhat answered last Saturday when the Nittany Lions traveled to Madison and defeated Wisconsin, 16-10. It was the team’s fifth consecutive win - dating back to last season.

And while it’s obviously way too early to predict what the remainder of the season will look like, that type of win in a hostile road environment against the No. 12 team in the country is certainly a positive start to the season and will hopefully serve as an indicator of even better things to come..

What especially impressed me was the way Penn State was able to come away with the win. It was a gutty effort that saw The Nittany Lions improve offensively in the second half by getting the ball out in space to their playmakers. But the biggest reason for optimism was an absolutely extraordinary performance from the defense - which hung in there all day long and made plays when it needed to. To face 95 plays on the day, force three turnovers, hold their opponent to a 1-for-4 showing in the red zone and give up just 10 points is the definition of leaving it all out there on the field.

Penn State might still be somewhat of a mystery moving forward, because one game - no matter how impressive - doesn’t make a season. But one thing it proved against the Badgers is that it’s a tough football team that responds well to adversity throughout the course of a game.

Later today, the Nittany Lions will take on Ball State - the favorite to win the MAC this season. The game will have a 3:30 p.m. start time and be televised on FS1. The Cardinals return almost everybody from last season’s MAC championship-winning squad and are expected to be pretty good on the offensive side of the ball. Ball State is returning 21 starters, with 16 super seniors, which is the fourth most in the country.

Stopping the Ball State passing attack and getting pressure on quarterback Drew Plitt will be priority No. 1 for the PSU defense. Plitt threw for 2,164 yards and 17 scores in a shortened season in 2020 and threw for 188 yards and two scores last week against FCS opponent Western Illinois. Plitt has some experienced and dynamic weapons at wide receiver in Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler.

Hall is simply a playmaker, catching eight balls for 137 yards and two touchdowns as well as adding four carries for 12 yards last week. Ball State likes to move around Hall, who came into this season as the FBS active leader in career receptions (257). The Cardinals are also strong up front as they return every one of its starters on the offensive line.

It was all about the second half and getting Jahan Dotson involved last week for the Nittany Lions’ offense. Penn State scored all 16 of their points in the second half and it was Dotson and explosive plays in the passing game that injected some energy into the offense. A 49-yard touchdown pass to Dotson in the third quarter and a 42-yard strike to the Nazareth native in the fourth quarter that setup Penn State’s second touchdown of the day were the biggest offensive plays in the game. Getting the ball out in space to Dotson, Parker Washington, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith early and often should breed success against a Cardinals defense that gave up 367 yards passing last week to the Leathernecks. Veteran Nittany Lions’ quarterback Sean Clifford will need to be sharper as he did miss Dotson on a few deep throws that could’ve resulted in more scores last week.

Getting the running game going will also be key, not only for this week, but for the weeks to come as the Nittany Lions rushed for just 50 yards on 18 carries. Wisconsin’s game plan was obviously geared to selling out to stop the run and the Badgers annually have one of the better defenses in the country. But with Penn State’s experience up front and its talent at running back, it certainly needs to be better.

An encouraging statistic coming out of last week’s game against Wisconsin was Penn State was plus-three in the turnover department. After finishing minus-seven last season, it was clear that coming into this season it needed to be better at creating turnovers and also taking care of the football.

With the talent in the NIttany Lions’ secondary, I knew there was a decent chance Jaquan Brisker and company could create some turnovers against Badgers’ quarterback Graham Mertz and I turned out to be correct as Brisker and his former Lackawanna teammate Ji’Ayir Brown came up with key interceptions late in the game to seal the victory.

I think this could become a common theme for the Penn State defense this season, especially if Arnold Ebiketie, Jesse Luketa and the rest of the Nittany Lions’ defensive ends can generate the same edge rush they did last week. Ebiketie, the Temple graduate transfer looked great in his Penn State debut and Luketa, making the switch from linebacker to defensive end also looked good. Luketa will need to wait until the second half to get after the quarterback this week as he will be filling in at middle linebacker for Ellis Brooks, who will miss the first half because of a controversial targeting call that led to an ejection in the second half last week.

Look for the Penn State offense to start quicker in this one and for the defense to once again create turnovers. I think Clifford will have a more consistent game from start to finish, because he will have more support from the Nittany Lions’ rushing attack.

My prediction: Penn State 44, Ball State 21.

I’m going to end this week’s column on somewhat of a solemn note. I would like to pass along my condolences to the family and friends of Peggy Sue O’Donnell, who passed away suddenly this week. Peggy Sue was a Jim Thorpe native and avid sports fan, especially when it came to the sport of college football as she was a die hard Notre Dame fan. There were many instances where Peggy Sue and I would have great conversations about sports, including college football. She loved local sports as well and was a big supporter of the Times News and all of our local sports coverage. Peggy Sue, you will be greatly missed.