Into the Nittany Lions’ Den: Penn State Preview


Courtesy of Centre Daily Times

The Wildcats play sixth ranked Penn State Saturday in an important game for the program.

Colin Beazley, Co-Sports Editor

The Wildcats’ second road trip of the season presents a vastly different challenge than their first.

The first, a season opening trip to Lehigh, was less than an hour by bus. The second, a trip to Penn State, requires a slightly longer three-hour ride. The game against Lehigh was attended by just over four thousand people, sparse attendance in a stadium seating 16,000. In Happy Valley on Saturday, empty seats will be hard to find despite Beaver Stadium’s official capacity of over 106,000. In their first trip, the Wildcats traveled to face a team that hadn’t won a game since 2019, a perennial FCS struggler and a Patriot League punching bag. Against Penn State, Villanova faces the FBS team ranked sixth in the nation, a historic Big Ten powerhouse with two national titles and a legitimate chance to contend for a third this year.

The first Wildcat road trip of the season resulted in a 47-3 cakewalk. For the second, a positive result will be much harder to come by.

“Every game we go into, our focus is to try to win the game, that’s why you play the game,” Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said in a Monday Colonial Athletic Association press conference. “Herm Edwards [said], ‘You play the game to win the game.’ And that’s always gonna be what we’re talking about, thinking about, preparing to do.” 

However, he then added a dose of realism.

“We’re gonna do what we can and go out there and hopefully execute at a high level, and see how it plays out,” Ferrante said. “As far as measuring levels of success, I’m not a moral victory guy, and our staff isn’t a moral victory type of staff, and I don’t think our players are either, we want to go out there and prepare and put the best product we can on the field and see where the cards lay and how it turns out.”

Both Penn State and Villanova enter the matchup with identical 3-0 records, yet their paths into this matchup have differed greatly. The Wildcats cruised in their first two games, defeating Lehigh and Bucknell by a combined score of 102-6, before needing a flurry of scores in the fourth quarter to pass their first real test against Richmond. Their FBS opponents are already battle-tested, winning their opener on the road against 12th ranked Wisconsin 16-10, before cruising against Ball State and holding off SEC powerhouse #22 Auburn 28-20 last weekend.

The Nittany Lions are led by redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford, now in his third year leading the team. Clifford has thrown for 757 yards and four touchdowns on the season, adding 87 yards and another score on the ground. His favorite target is senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who has 20 receptions for 245 yards and three touchdowns through the first three games. The Penn State rushing attack, featuring junior running back Noah Cain, has yet to be fully unleashed, as Cain has tallied just 162 yards on 47 carries.

The key to Penn State’s success has been its defense. Against Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions had two interceptions, forced a fumble and blocked a field goal attempt to hold the Badgers to just ten points. The Nittany Lions picked off Ball State twice in their second game, and forced an Auburn fumble, a turnover on downs and a game-ending incompletion in the end zone to clinch a 28-20 victory to improve to 3-0. Penn State has allowed opponents to reach the red zone a combined eleven times throughout its first three games, yet has kept its opponents off the board on five of those trips, with three takeaways, a turnover on downs and the blocked field goal.

Junior linebacker Brandon Smith has been the defensive centerpiece, with 25 tackles. Four different Nittany Lions have interceptions, including one each from senior linebacker Jesse Luketa and senior safety Jaquan Brisker. Redshirt senior defensive end Arnold Ebiketie leads the team in tackles for loss, with three.

For the Wildcats, the success of the game is dependent on how graduate quarterback Daniel Smith adapts to the game speed of an FBS opponent and the enhanced spotlight of Happy Valley. Smith has completed 45 of 70 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, and junior wide receiver Jaaron Hayek has 13 receptions for 202 yards and three scores. Graduate running back Justin Covington has rushed 44 times for 307 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 156 yards against Lehigh alone, but holes will be much harder to find against a Big Ten defensive line.

Ferrante’s plans to prepare his team as if this was any other opponent. 

“From our perspective, our week’s not gonna be any different,” he said Monday. “We’re gonna go out and have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practice the way we always do, and try to prepare to the best of our ability versus the opponent that we’re playing. We’re gonna try to incorporate a little more noise, a little more volume into some of our team periods of practice… that’s just one tweak or adjustment to try to simulate 100,000 people, as opposed to ten thousand people.”

However, he did admit that the magnitude of the opponent required one major change to the team’s travel itinerary. 

“We traditionally do not go to the visiting stadium on Friday, but we are gonna go and just do a quick walkthrough just to get the oohs and aahs out of the way,” Ferrante said. “Other than that, nothing changes. Let’s take a consistent approach to our preparation and worry about how we’re executing come gameday.”

The Wildcats go into the matchup with a three-game winning streak against Penn State, beating the Nittany Lions in 1936, 1949 and 1951. However, Penn State won five of the first six matchups, including a 71-0 victory in 1912.

Ferrante knows the mammoth task his team will undertake, so he kept his promises simple. 

“We’re gonna do what we can and go out there and hopefully execute at a high level, and see how it plays out,” he said.

The game kicks off Saturday at noon.