What We Learned From Penn State’s Win Over Wisconsin
One week down, one win in the books for James Franklin’s squad.
Penn State football opened its season with a 16-10 win over Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. A strong defensive performance, paired with a second-half offensive surge, led the Nittany Lions to their fifth straight win over the Badgers dating back to 2012.
Following a huge win over a ranked Big Ten opponent, here’s what we learned about the Nittany Lions:
Arnold Ebiketie Is Just As Good As Advertised
Have yourself a debut, Arnold Ebiketie. The Temple transfer earned a start in his Penn State debut and certainly made his presence felt all game long.
The 6’3”, 256-pound defensive end totaled seven tackles, two for a loss, one sack, one quarterback hit, and a blocked field goal in the dominant performance.
The sack came on the last drive of the game when he forced Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to throw the ball away, resulting in an intentional grounding penalty, which is why he was credited with a sack. His disruptive play was crucial to Penn State’s defensive performance Saturday.
While Penn State knew it was getting a quality player with Ebiketie, it’s far-fetched to think the coaching staff expected this kind of dominating play this early on. However, James Franklin said after the game that ever since Ebiketie arrived on campus, he’s stuck out.
“There’s been a buzz about ‘AK’ since he showed up on campus,” Franklin said. “He’s an explosive guy, a productive guy. I think he’ll only get better from this.”
With defensive end being a question mark coming into the season, the team appears to have found its big answer at the position with Ebiketie.
Safeties Are Seriously That Good
The safety duo of Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown put on a show in Saturday’s defensive clinic. The Lackawanna College boys locked up the backend of Brent Pry’s defense and simply made plays all game long.
Despite battling injuries all game, Brisker turned in his usual elite performance. He totaled four tackles, one pass breakup, and one interception. The interception, which came late in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin driving in Penn State’s territory, completely flipped momentum back to the Nittany Lions and made the Badgers’ comeback attempt significantly tougher.
Brown complemented Brisker well at the other safety spot, totaling five tackles, one pass breakup, and the game-ending interception as time expired in the fourth quarter.
“I thought both Brisker and [Brown] were fantastic today,” Franklin said after Saturday’s win. “A bunch of playmaking and production out of our safeties, which we haven’t had in a long time in terms of turnovers is what I’m talking about. In the run game, they were great. The pass game, they had some [pass breakups]…I thought they were a huge difference in today’s game.”
Stability and consistency at the back end of a defense is crucial to a unit’s success, which makes the duo’s impact play all the more significant.
Mike Yurcich Doesn’t Panic, Stays Calm, & Makes Adjustments
Saturday’s game was the start of the Mike Yurcich era for Penn State’s offense. It wasn’t the start the team had hoped for, as the offense totaled just 43 yards and one first down the entire first half. Additionally, the Nittany Lions averaged an abysmal two yards per play during the first 30 minutes of action.
However, a disappointing first half didn’t lower the confidence of anyone on offense, especially the unit’s leader, Yurcich. Two offensive veterans, Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson spoke about Yurcich’s confident mindset at halftime.
“He’s literally a mastermind,” Dotson said. “He has an answer for every situation we’re in. He said in the locker room that he’s got us. We had his back. We knew he was going to put us in great situations to make plays, and that’s what he did.”
“He’s a really good coach,” Clifford said. “He didn’t blink an eye. He just told us, like I said, ‘It’s a matter of time.’ And that’s really how this is.”
Clifford added that Yurcich was very calm at the half and joked that he was even surprised at how calm he was. Yurcich’s calm, cool, and collected demeanor clearly made a difference, as the team responded with 254 total yards and 16 points in the second half. Additionally, the Nittany Lions responded with 10 first downs in the second half, a much better mark than the one they recorded in the first half.
Offensive Line Still Has Some Work To Do
One of the major contributing factors to Penn State’s poor offensive first half was the offensive line. Throughout the first half, Clifford was hurried and hit often, leading to the disappointing overall offensive performance mentioned before.
While the unit certainly played better in the second half, there’s definitely room for improvement to really tighten things up and become more consistent. For the whole game, Penn State averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, and Clifford was sacked twice.
One of the storylines surrounding the offensive line is the rotation at left guard. Coming into the game, Franklin said Anthony Whigan and Eric Wilson would rotate at the position. After it was Whigan who started the game and played a few drives, it all Wilson for the remainder of the game, including starting the second half. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see if a clear-cut starter is named for the position.
Despite the inconsistent game from Phil Trautwein’s group, the unit’s improved play in the second half could be a sign of better things to come moving forward. As far as those second-half improvements are concerned, left tackle Rasheed Walker said it boiled down to making adjustments at halftime and communicating.
“We went to the locker room and just made a few adjustments,” Walker said. “You got the people in the box, they see more stuff than we can see on the field, so it was all just about communication and just translating the conversation we had in the locker room to the field.”
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