If Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin was hoping to get some of the heat off his back, it won’t happen after his team’s performance on Saturday vs. No. 22 Penn State.
In fact, things are about to get much more intense (if that’s even possible at Auburn).
The latest reason for the ever-increasing consternation on The Plains was a 41-12 beatdown at the hands of the visiting Nittany Lions.
While PSU got a combined four touchdowns from the dynamic freshman running back duo of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, the defense was in the Auburn backfield all afternoon. The Nittany Lions forced four Auburn turnovers, including two deep in PSU territory.
Auburn moved the ball relatively well, but red zone success — or lack thereof — was the difference early on. Auburn was held to multiple red zone field goals while the Nittany Lions consistently finished drives with touchdowns. As a result, PSU took a 14-6 lead into halftime.
The second half was even more lopsided.
PSU’s first drive of the second half needed just three Singleton runs — a 53-yard burst, a four-yarder and then a one-yard touchdown plunge — to add to the lead.
Penn State’s defense forced a fumble of Auburn QB TJ Finley on the ensuing drive and then picked off another Auburn QB, Robby Ashford, later in the third.
PSU scored off of both those turnovers — first a field goal and then a touchdown run by Allen, his second.
By that point, the Penn State lead was 31-6 and it was far too much for Auburn to overcome in a dominating effort. Early in the fourth, Singleton broke off 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 struggled mightily in the run game in recent years, but seems to have true gamebreakers with Singleton and Allen. Singleton finished with 124 yards on just 10 carries while Allen pitched in 52 yards on nine tries.
Meanwhile, Auburn has very 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 a receiver group that is average at best.
It’s not a good recipe and it led to Auburn’s largest 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.
He’s only in his second season, but it’s no secret that many big-money boosters on The Plains never wanted Harsin when former Auburn athletic director Allen Greene brought him in from Boise State.
Those 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 did not help matters and things got crazy in the offseason, culminating in a much-publicized investigation into Harsin’s supposed conduct.
After all of that chaos, including nothing of note emerging from that probe, Harsin entered his second season under the microscope. The Tigers started the year with wins over subpar opponents, including barely getting past San Jose State. But the tide could have potentially changed if Auburn took care of business against a good Big Ten program like Penn State.
Instead, the Tigers got their doors blown off. And with SEC play beginning 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 set to make a jump in the rankings. The Nittany Lions host Central Michigan next week before diving headfirst into conference play.
Is this team talented enough to compete with Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East? Adding the explosive element of Singleton in the run game is a big deal and the offensive line seems to have improved significantly.
Those two 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 got burned with some third-down blitzes early, but were able to generate four turnovers and get constant pressure on Auburn passers.
Auburn could prove to be a very mediocre team, but it’s still a confidence-building effort for James Franklin’s group. That’s especially true after consecutive underwhelming seasons.