It seemed like a story we had seen before from James Franklin’s Nittany Lions. After an incredible stop–an interception by Jaquan Brisker–the offense had the ball back with one first down away from sealing a 1-0 start. The Badgers held their ground and gave themselves one more chance on offense. As they did all day, the Nittany Lions would have to rely on the defense to get one more stop. They came through.
Head Coach James Franklin was 0-12 on the road against ranked opponents before Saturday. Penn State traveled to Madison with a lot of question marks. Would Sean Clifford play more consistently? Would this be the best offensive line in Franklin’s tenure? Would the defensive line hold up against a stout and persistent rushing attack? Would the secondary be the strength of the team?
For now, some of those questions seem to be answered. Let’s start with the elephant or the big red dog, if you will, in the room. The first half was nothing to be excited about, but it really wasn’t Clifford’s fault. In his 22nd career start, the quarterback failed to find any rhythm mostly due to inconsistent blocking, ill-timed blitzes by the Wisconsin defense, and a lack of a rushing game.
However, that changed in the second half. Offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, opened up the playbook and challenged the Badgers’ edges as well as tested their secondary. It’s remarkable how much more comfortable Clifford looks when he is chucking the ball 40 yards downfield instead of nickel and diming it. Additionally, it gave more opportunities to Penn State’s best offensive weapon, WR Jahan Dotson. Yurcich’s plan worked. According to David Eckert, Blue & White Illustrated, Penn State had six plays of 40+ yards last season. They had three on Saturday.
Now the second half offensive explosion wasn’t close to being perfect. The offensive line, the second looming question we had coming into the season didn’t play their best game. The offensive tackles, Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace did not play to the level expected of them–sometimes being beat one on one with Wisconsin’s defensive ends. There were also a few penalties along with failed assignments when the Wisconsin defense threw complicated stunts at them. Thankfully, this was probably Penn State’s 2nd or 3rd most challenging front seven they will face all season.
Now let’s talk about the most impressive part of the game: the defense. For starters, the defense withstood an onslaught of rushing from the Wisconsin defense. The Badgers had the ball for over 42 minutes, ran the ball 58 times out of their 95 offensive plays, and attempted 22 third downs. Even with the Wisconsin rushing attack battering ram, Penn State held Wisconsin to 3.0 yds per rush. They held Wisconsin to 7-22 on third down, 1-4 in the red zone, and forced 2 turnovers and recovered an unforced fumble.
The defensive line, which rightfully had speculation before the season after losing Oweh, Toney, and Isaac (due to injury), looked up to the task. Nobody shined brighter than the Temple transfer, DE Arnold Ebiketie. Ebiketie ended up with 7 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry, and a field goal block. Franklin said afterward that he believes Ebiketie is just getting started. Defensive tackle, PJ Mustipher also had a great game, in the interior, clogging gaps and picking up 7 total tackles.
Behind them, the linebackers lived up to hype. It didn’t matter if it was Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith, Curtis Jacobs, or Jesse Luketa, who went from DE to MLB after Brooks was ejected for targeting, they all were flying around the field. The foursome combined for 29 tackles.
Then how about the secondary? The Lackawanna College, tandem at safety sealed the game for the Nittany Lions. Brisker, who was knocked out of the game three separate times and was combating cramps all game, played out of his mind. Brisker’s interception was also a thing of beauty. As Luketa came on a blitz on a crucial third down, Wisconsin’s quarterback, Graham Mertz, looked to find his safety blanket tight end, Jake Ferguson over the middle. Brisker instinctively read the play from the start, intercepted the pass, and returned it 41 yards. Game over?
Wisconsin was able to burn two timeouts and force a punt after Penn State ran on first down, threw a play-action pass to the flat on second down, and ran it again on third down. After two 10-yd out routes against soft coverage and a penalty against the defense for illegal hands in the face, Wisconsin was already on Penn State’s 40 yard line and within striking distance with over a minute to play.
Penn State fans began to fear a last second collapse, something they saw in last year’s opener against Indiana. Would this season be plagued with similar misfortune? After another big play over the middle gave Wisconsin a chance with the ball at the two yard line, the ball finally bounced Penn State’s way. Mertz fumbled the snap and the Badgers lost five yards. A couple plays later Ji’Ayir Brown intercepted Mertz and gave Penn State one of their biggest road wins since maybe Iowa in 2019, or Iowa in 2017.
The box score illustrates a game the Nittany Lions should have lost. More times than not, Wisconsin dominates games where they rush 58 times and have the ball for 42 minutes. In some ways it’s poetic justice for last year’s opener when the Nittany Lions dominated the box score, but failed to win. Penn State can’t afford to lean on their defense that heavily the entire season, but in week one, without a tune up game, on the road in a hostile environment, the Nittany Lions found a way to win.
That’s a pretty important lesson for this team to learn in week one, especially since it took them 6 games last season to learn the same lesson.