If Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin was hoping to take some of the heat off his back, it won’t happen after his team’s performance Saturday vs. No. 22 Penn State.
In fact, things are about to get a lot tougher (if that’s even possible in Auburn).
The latest cause of ever-growing anxiety on The Plains was a 41-12 blowout at the hands of the visiting Nittany Lions.
Although PSU got a combined four touchdowns from the dynamic new running back duo of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, the defense was in Auburn’s backfield all afternoon. The Nittany Lions forced four Auburn turnovers, including two deep in PSU territory.
Auburn moved the ball pretty well, but red zone success — or lack thereof — was the difference early. Auburn was held to multiple red field goals and the Nittany Lions consistently finished drives with touchdowns. As a result, PSU led 14-6 at halftime.
The second half was even more lopsided.
PSU’s first drive of the second half needed just three Singleton runs — a 53-yard, four-yarder and then a one-yard touchdown plunge — to add to the lead.
Penn State’s defense pressured Auburn QB TJ Finley on the ensuing drive and then another Auburn QB, Robby Ashford, was picked off later on third down.
PSU scored on both of those turnovers – first a field goal and then an Allen run, his second.
By that point, Penn State’s lead was 31-6 and it was too much for Auburn to overcome in a dominant effort. Early in the fourth, Singleton broke for a 54-yard touchdown to put the final nail in the coffin.
Penn State would finish the game with 481 yards of offense, including 245 yards on the ground. PSU has struggled a lot in the running game in recent years, but it looks like it has real players in Singleton and Allen. Singleton finished with 124 yards on 10 carries and Allen rushed for 52 yards on nine attempts.
Meanwhile, Auburn has few — if any — difference-makers on offense. Tank Bigsby is a proven SEC running back, but the Tigers have mediocre quarterback play, a leaky offensive line and an average receiver group at best.
Not a good recipe and it was Auburn’s biggest non-conference home loss since a 41-7 loss to Nebraska back in 1982.
What does this mean for Auburn?
Fair or not, Harsin entered the 2022 season with one of the hottest seats in the country.
It’s only his second season, but it’s no secret that Harsin didn’t want a lot of cash on The Plains when former Auburn athletic director Allen Greene brought him in from Boise State.
The clamors quieted when Auburn started 6-2 last season, but things got ugly when the Tigers closed out the season with five consecutive losses to finish 6-7. Lackluster results on the recruiting trail didn’t help matters and things got crazy during the season, culminating in a highly publicized investigation into Harsin’s alleged conduct.
After all that chaos, including nothing significant emerging from that audit, Harsin entered his second season under the microscope. The Tigers started the year with more wins than subpar opponents, including barely getting past San Jose State. But the tide could have turned if Auburn could take care of business against a good Big Ten program like Penn State.
Instead, the Tigers got their doors blown off. With SEC play starting next week, things could get ugly on The Plains.
Where does Penn State go from here?
PSU is now 3-0 with road wins over Purdue and Auburn and is poised to make a jump in the rankings. The Nittany Lions will host Central Michigan next week before making their first move into conference play.
Is this team talented enough to compete with Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East? Adding Singleton’s explosive element to the running game is a big deal and the offensive line appears to have improved significantly.
Both of those developments help sixth-year senior QB Sean Clifford in a big way.
Additionally, the defense looks much more aggressive with Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator. The Nittany Lions were burned with some third down blitzes early, but they were able to generate four turnovers and get constant pressure on Auburn passers.
Auburn might be a very average team, but it’s still a confidence-building effort for James Franklin’s group. That’s especially true after consecutive underwhelming seasons.