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PSU faces Auburn in battle of ranked teams

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”

That quote, made famous by former Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Santana Moss, certainly applies to the No. 10-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions game this week, as they welcome the No. 22-ranked Auburn Tigers to Beaver Stadium in a primetime matchup this evening (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

This ball game has it all, with it being the annual Penn State Whiteout - which always provides a raucous atmosphere - as well as ESPN College Gameday making its 22nd appearance at the site of a Nittany Lions game. Penn State is the only school to host GameDay in each of the last five seasons.

Let’s dive right into this one as there are plenty of good match-ups to discuss.

First and foremost I believe the best position group battle, and in fact the most important battle in the game, will be between Penn State’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line. The Tigers defensive line is no joke and possesses both speed and athleticism on both the edges and in the middle.

Auburn has compiled nine sacks over its first two games, albeit against Akron and Alabama State. The Tigers front is led by TD Moultry, who has 10 tackles, four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The Nittany Lions’ offensive line looked a bit shaky against Wisconsin in the first half in Week 1, but improved in the second half against the Badgers and then looked good last week against last season’s MAC champion Ball State. Giving Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford a clean pocket is paramount as the redshirt senior has shown that he will struggle at times when under pressure.

Pass protection isn’t the only facet of the game that the Nittany Lions’ offensive line unit will need to have success Saturday night as establishing the run game early will be vital as well. Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee’s production on early downs will take a lot of pressure off Clifford and will help keep the Tigers’ edge rushers from just pinning their ears back. The Whiteout environment always serves as a distinct advantage, but putting early points on the board magnifies it and excites the fans even more.

It’s been a common theme for my predictions over the past two games now, but I once again think the Penn State defense comes up big in this one. It’s just such an advantage to have speed and playmaking ability in the secondary. Add in a Penn State pass rush that is better than expected and the athleticism the Nittany Lions have at linebacker and I think you could once again see some takeaways this week.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix hasn’t seen many environments like the one he’s going to see later tonight, and he’s been a much different quarterback on the road than he has been at home. On the road, Nix has thrown for 1,617 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions compared to 3,078 yards, 20 touchdowns and just one interception in the confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Auburn also has a record under .500 with Nix at quarterback on the road. Still, Nix isn’t to be taken lightly as he’s thrown for 5,340 yards and 33 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions in his career. Nix can also make plays with his feet, having rushed for 731 yards and 14 scores on the ground in his career.

Undoubtedly, Nix will be a focal point for the Nittany Lions’ defense, but I think the key for them will be to stop the Auburn rushing attack. Running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter figure to be a big part of what the Tigers want to do offensively, which I think will be to try and grind out some long clock-eating drives in order to take the Whiteout crowd out of the ball game. Penn State gave up just 3.1 yards per carry to what is always a vaunted Wisconsin rushing attack in Week 1, so I’m expecting the Nittany Lions to be stingy in that department yet again.

I love this match-up this week, with a fast and athletic SEC team coming to BIG 10 country early in the season. There’s no doubt it generates a ton of excitement, which is why ESPN College Gameday has decided to make State College the next stop on its weekly tour.

I think early on you’re going to see a real defensive battle as these two teams figure each other out, with two quarterbacks that still have a lot to prove. Neither Clifford nor Nix has shown, despite their physical intangibles, that they can win the big game, so one of them is going to need to step up. I think the atmosphere, Penn State’s talent in the secondary and the big play ability of wide receiver Jahan Dotson will be just enough for the Nittany Lions to come away with the victory.

Clifford will need to make some plays under pressure, however, if Penn State is going to win this game. Clifford will also need to be decisive and he will need to be able to step up in the pocket, avoid the Tigers’ pass rush and make accurate throws down the field. Look for some short throws to the edge, getting the ball out of Clifford’s hands quickly to receivers in space to start the ball game to give him some confidence.

My pick is Penn State 24, Auburn 21.