Across The Field: Q&A with Penn State Beat Writer Ben Jones As Nittany Lions Look to Bounce Back in Home Opener Against Ohio State

By Dan Hope on October 29, 2020 at 8:35 am
Sean Clifford and Devyn Ford
Marc Lebryk – USA TODAY Sports

Before each week's Ohio State game, Eleven Warriors catches up with a media member who covers the opposing team to get his or her perspective on the Buckeyes' upcoming opponent.

For this week's edition of Across The Field, we bring back Ben Jones, who covers Penn State for, to get his insights on the Nittany Lions as they look to bounce back from last week's overtime loss to Indiana and pull off an upset win over Ohio State in their home opener at Beaver Stadium.


7:30 P.M. – SATURDAY, OCT. 31


We discuss what went wrong against the Hoosiers, how the Nittany Lions will respond to that defeat, how much they will miss their home fans on Saturday and what must happen for them to have a real chance to beat the Buckeyes.

Let’s start with the obvious question: What happened against Indiana? What were the biggest factors that led to Penn State's loss?

Jones: There is a lot to unpack here. On the one hand, Penn State converted more than half of its third downs, had almost 500 yards of offense, scored 35 points and held Indiana’s offense pretty well in check for most of the game. (Yes, I realize it’s Indiana, but historically Indiana has thrown for a billion yards on Penn State.) If you simply looked at the box scores and the general output of the two teams, you’d have a hard time assuming Penn State lost. And yet here they are.

Then there is the rest of the game. Sean Clifford threw two really bad interceptions, there were missed field goals and the whole end of regulation situation to think about as well. Penn State also had 100 yards of penalties which has been a real rarity for the program over the last few years. In short, there was a lot of shooting of oneself directly in one's face.

I think the actual result aside, there is good news and bad news for Penn State. On the one hand, there’s a loss to deal with. On the other hand, if you’re going to have problems to deal with, they may as well be penalties and turnovers and not a grand sense of incompetence. This offense still has lulls in the middle of the game, but hey, we’ve all been there.

Penn State is now effectively fighting for its season in Week 2. How do you think the Nittany Lions will respond to that pressure?

Jones: To go back to the previous question a bit, I think it’s easier to respond when your mistakes are self-inflicted because that’s at least something you can control. It’s hard to imagine the effort won’t be there because the general desire to win a football game coupled with the general nationwide enthusiasm for trying to beat Ohio State.

This team isn’t short on guys who have been around the block, and I imagine Sean Clifford will want a second crack at the Buckeyes now that he is a lot healthier than he was last season. So generally, I imagine Penn State will get up to play a smarter and competitive game. But honestly, if playing Ohio State doesn’t get you ready to go, then you probably shouldn’t be taking the field in the first place.

Penn State lost two of its biggest stars, Micah Parsons and Journey Brown, before the start of the season. How much are the Nittany Lions missing them right now?

Jones: This is tough because Penn State misses them both for different reasons. Generally speaking, the linebacker group should be OK this season with Jesse Luketa returning as a not-a-starter-but-basically-starter and former five-star Brandon Smith. That said, you don’t have a potential DPOY leave the program and not have some amount of drop-off in the process. This week in particular, Luketa being out for the first half [due to a targeting penalty last week] isn’t ideal if you’re Penn State, but that’s not really directly Parsons-related.

Brown is sort of the same deal. The running back room was about the only place that could really lose a guy like Brown and still be OK, but the loss of Noah Cain for the year has left Penn State with Devyn Ford and a bunch of guys I had to double-check their bios for. Given the uncertainty at receiver, the assumption was Penn State would run the ball a lot more, and then everyone got sick or hurt.

Generally speaking, they probably will end up missing Brown more by virtue of the room around him, but Parsons is the kind of player who gives Penn State an edge in games like this one where maybe the Nittany Lions aren’t favored but they have a player that can make things happen on his own.

Who are some of Penn State’s emerging stars that Ohio State and its fans need to be aware of entering this game?

Jones: This is sort of the question everyone is asking right now. Brandon Smith at linebacker is a safe bet as a former five-star. Joey Porter Jr. (yes, related to the former NFL player) looked outstanding at corner last week and rocketed up Penn State’s depth chart to a starting role this offseason after a redshirt year. 

Offensively, guys like Cam Sullivan-Brown and Daniel George are older guys playing bigger roles at receiver. Parker Washington is starting as a true freshman at receiver, but didn’t do much against Indiana, so I don’t actually know much about him other than he is small and fast. KeAndre Lambert-Smith is another one of those looks-the-part freshmen at receiver. You’ll sense a trend here.

Other than that, a lot of the names and faces on both sides of the ball are fairly familiar.

Brandon Smith
Brandon Smith (12) is projected as a breakout player at linebacker for Penn State this season. (Photo: Matthew O'Haren – USA TODAY Sports)

Penn State is 26-2 at home since the start of the 2016 season. How much do you think that home-field advantage is driven by the environment the fans create at Beaver Stadium, and do you think there will still be a home-field advantage without fans in attendance?

Jones: To some degree, you have to not suck at the game of football to win a game of football, but there’s no real question that Penn State’s home-field advantage has helped over that span. Urban Meyer’s general dislike of playing at Beaver Stadium because of the crowd after a long career of coaching lots of otherwise un-fun places speaks to this a bit as well. It’s impossible to rank crowds and atmospheres, but I would put Beaver Stadium up against any of the other obvious choices for a “good crowd, tough place to play” list.

I do think that’s the big question going into the weekend, though. It’s safe to assume Penn State has gotten its fair share of help against Ohio State due to the atmosphere, and now it’s just going to be a very large stadium full of nothing much at all. To me, Penn State needs a crowd to win these kinds of games, maybe not in 2016 or 2017, but nothing about the 2020 Penn State team screams “Yes, I should pick them to win against Ohio State in an empty stadium.”

In the long run, it may not have made a difference either way this year, given Penn State’s question marks and Ohio State’s general ability to casually grind teams into small pebbles, but nobody turns down the help when it comes to 110,000 people wearing white.

What must the Nittany Lions do well to have a chance to win this game, and do you think they will?

Jones: People tend to say that you have to play perfect in these types of games but really Penn State hasn’t played perfect in any of them. The double overtime game a few years ago was a hot mess, the 2016 game was Penn State having quite a lot of things go its way on a single play despite not playing very well, and the 2017 and 2018 games were competitive but Penn State wasn’t exactly pitching a shutout. 2019 was not really that close, but nobody complains when you repeatedly drop the football on the ground and let the other team pick it up. So to me this is a matter of limiting mistakes. You lose big games because two teams spend a few quarters punching each other in the face and then eventually somebody slips. 

Penn State has to play well, it has to control the clock and the ball and score and play good defense and not make mistakes. Other than all those very important things going well and Ohio State not doing them as well, it should be a good game.

Sarcasm aside, Ohio State is the better team on the field and on paper. I think Penn State has figured out how to hang around in this game over the years, but unless Clifford can hit some shots down the field, it’s 2019 all over again. The one interesting wrinkle will be ball control, something that appears to be a change in the offense under Kirk Ciarrocca. Ohio State, in theory, can’t score if it doesn’t have the ball.

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