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Game Recap: Penn State wins thriller in Madison to start 1-0

Penn State’s defense wanted to force more turnovers this year. It’s off to a good start.

Make that a great start.

Clinging to a six-point lead in the final minutes, the Nittany Lions ended two Wisconsin drives with interceptions, both by transfer safeties from Lackawanna College. Jaquan Brisker got the first one, stepping in front of a Graham Mertz pass in the end zone with 2 minutes, 16 seconds left. Ji’Ayir Brown got the second with a pick on the Badgers’ desperate final drive.

The result was a 16-10 road victory over 12th-ranked Wisconsin in perhaps the toughest season-opening matchup of James Franklin’s eight-year tenure at Penn State.

The 19th-ranked Nittany Lions got a gritty effort from their defense, which was on the field for an incredible 95 snaps and 41 minutes but kept coming up with big plays even as the game was drawing to a close.

“Our defense played really well,” Franklin said. “We played gutsy, played hard. We made big plays when we needed to against a really challenging Wisconsin offense.”

Here’s a look at the good and the bad:

The Penn State Nittany Lion football team started its 2021 season with a big win over No. 12 ranked Wisconsin.
WR Jahan Dotson scored a 49-yard touchdown in the third quarter to open the scoring for both teams.

The Good

• On a day that was full of star-making performances by Penn State’s defense, Brisker shined the brightest. He had to be helped off the field at least three times due to cramping problems but kept coming back for more. In the end, he had four tackles and a pass breakup in addition to his crucial interception.

“I was dealing with cramps and other things,” Brisker told FOX after the game. “But I couldn’t let my teammates down. I came back for a reason. We came back for a reason. I had a chip on my shoulder and I just had to [play].”

Arnold Ebiketie made a huge first impression, smothering Wisconsin running back Chez Mellusi in the backfield on the Badgers’ first play from scrimmage. Ebiketie also ended Wisconsin’s next drive with a blindside hit to force a Mertz incompletion on third down and blocked a chip-shot field goal attempt early in the second quarter.

“There’s been a buzz about AK since he showed up on campus,” Franklin said. “He’s an explosive guy, he’s a productive guy. He’ll only get better from this, and from going against this offensive line, one of the better offensive lines in college football.”

• In addition to Penn State’s two late interceptions, Nick Tarburton came up with a key fumble recovery deep in PSU territory in the first half. The Lions did miss a couple of turnover opportunities; Brown and Tarburton weren’t able to hang onto seemingly catchable throws by Mertz in the second half. But overall, it was a great day for a Penn State defense that had only four interceptions in nine games last year.

• Yes, they managed only 16 points, all in the second half. But the Lions showed just enough explosiveness to get you excited about what may be in store this season. After a dismal first half, Penn State came alive with long catches by Jahan Dotson (49 yards for a touchdown) and KeAndre Lambert-Smith (52 yards). Dotson finished with five catches for 102 yards and could have had another long touchdown, but Sean Clifford overthrew him on a deep post.

“We knew we had to get the ball on the perimeter, whether that was with outside zone or with the bubbles on the perimeter, which essentially are your running game,” Franklin said. “So that helped us get going.”

• This might seem like faint praise, but it’s not: Penn State didn’t turn the ball over. Given how often the Lions sabotaged their own efforts last year by failing to hold onto the ball, that’s a noteworthy development.

The Bad

• The Lions’ new-look offense was entirely ineffective in the first half, primarily because it wasn’t able to do anything on first down. Penn State averaged less than a yard on seven first-down plays in the half. Facing repeated second- and third-and-long situations against a veteran Badgers defense, the Lions totaled just one first down in the first 30 minutes and weren’t able to cross midfield until the third quarter.

“It’s hard to live in third-and-long all day long,” Franklin said. “[The Badgers] were in third-and-short all day long, and we were in third-and-long all day long.”

• Taking over the place-kicking duties full-time, Jordan Stout missed a 24-yard field goal attempt with the score tied late in the third quarter and later missed a PAT. Those misses didn’t end up costing Penn State the game, but they will surely be a topic of conversation this coming week.

“We kicked the laces” on the PAT, Franklin said, “but we still should be able to make an extra point. We’ll get that cleaned up.”

Looking Ahead

Penn State will take on Ball State in its home opener. The defending Mid-American Conference champs got off to a sluggish start in their opener Thursday against Western Illinois, holding the ball for just under 11 minutes in the first half. But they rallied in the last two quarters, scoring 24 second-half points en route to a 31-21 victory.

While the Cardinals prevailed, Western Illinois put together some big passing numbers, as quarterback Connor Sampson completed 30 of 43 attempts for 367 yards. Receiver Dennis Houston accounted for 237 of those yards on 12 catches.

Those numbers will no doubt be of great interest to Penn State’s coaching staff this week. The Lions may have escaped Madison with a win, but there’s plenty of room for improvement in Week 2.

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