Editor's Note: Story has been updated with post-game quotes.
The crowd let out their pent-up energy with roars after a pop from the pads of Owen Pappoe on Penn State's senior quarterback Sean Clifford sent the ball rolling onto the ground on the first drive of the game, but the ball rolled out of bounds.
This play symbolized the missed opportunities that haunted Auburn in the highly-anticipated rematch with Penn State.
Just when things looked promising for Auburn, Penn State's defense hushed Auburn's momentum each time in the 41-12 Penn State win. Auburn didn't venture into the end zone until Jarquez Hunter took a Robby Ashford pass 22 yards to the house with 14:27 in the fourth quarter, but Auburn and T.J. Finley threatened several times, taking the ball deep into Penn State territory on the first three drives of the game.
Each of those drives ate up over four minutes of clock and put together a combined 147 yards, but Auburn only got six points out of it, while Penn State's running game got them into the end zone five times.
“I'm concerned about the turnovers in general," said head coach Bryan Harsin. "And, you know, on the year I think we are minus eight. When it's all said and done, and I said that last week, that's not a sustainable formula.”
Things were far from out of hand at halftime, with a 14-6 Penn State advantage, and Auburn out gained the Nittany Lions 233-207 in yardage, got more first downs (13-9) and won time of possession (15:44-14:16). However, all the Tigers had an eight-point deficit to show for it.
Finley showed impressive pocket awareness and precision on passes in the first half, and even showed off his athleticism and toughness by taking off and running. He was 11-for-18 for 152 years passing at halftime, and he added no additional yardage or completions in the second half. Instead, he was sacked twice, fumbled once and threw a few incompletions before giving way to Ashford.
As the game progressed, Auburn's deficit only grew, and it couldn't find any momentum in the second half, as the Nittany Lions outscored the Tigers 27-6. Finley led a three-and-out before his second turnover of the game, a strip sack, thrusted Ashford into the game to finish out the third quarter.
Ashford's opening drive looked like it might be a good change of play and put some air in the Tigers' lungs, but once again, Auburn reached the Penn State eight-yard line and then the momentum fizzled out.
“You got to get some momentum, you got to create that," Harsin said. "You got to go execute to do that. And when you make some plays, I think you feel that momentum. But really, we just didn't get into a consistent enough groove to get that momentum back.”
After a run from Tank Bigsby lost Auburn four yards and Ashford was sacked for 11 yards, Ashford looked for Malcolm Johnson Jr. inside the 10-yard line and was picked off. While Penn State's drives all ended in a rushing score, Auburn's ended in, at best, a field goal, and if not that, a turnover.
Auburn committed four turnovers in the game, and the defense has still not forced one all year.
"We popped (a fumble) out today. We just gotta be in the right place at the right time. Nobody was there. We gotta keep going until the end of the whistle," Pappoe said. "We gotta keep breaking on the ball and try to make plays at the ball."
Penn State also sacked Auburn QBs six times, while Auburn didn't get to Clifford at all. The sixth-year senior and four-year starter is a cool, collected veteran, but he was able to get even more comfortable than he already was with a clean pocket all day long.
Even Auburn's strength, the run game, was dominated by Penn State's ground attack, which accounted for all five of the Nittany Lions' touchdowns. Freshman Nicholas Singleton's second one sealed the deal in the fourth quarter.
His 54-yard carry made it 38-12 with just over 12 minutes to go. From there, Penn State added another field goal and the outcome was set in stone. Ashford and the Auburn offense continued to fight to the end, but the Tigers' day ended in a turnover on downs.
The Tigers once again lose their first game of the season to Penn State, but Auburn didn't fight the same way it did in a 28-20 loss to the Nittany Lions in 2021. This was a story of missed opportunities and lost momentum -- one that Auburn will try to reverse next week against Missouri on homecoming week.
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Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.