Trailing 10-7 early in the second quarter, Penn State punted to Auburn after referee James Carter ruled it was fourth-and-11. The Nittany Lions had been flagged for intentional grounding on first down, an automatic loss-of-down foul.
On second-and-16, quarterback Sean Clifford found wide receiver Jahan Dotson for a 5-yard gain. But then Carter announced the next play as fourth down and Penn State brought punter Jordan Stout onto the field.
Penn State coach James Franklin said he tried to alert the officials of the downs mix-up but could not get the call changed.
"I talked to all of [the officials], and they said, look, they all agreed on the call and so did the replay [official]," Franklin said. "They all agreed. I kept bringing them over and saying, 'It's not accurate.' I don't know what else I can tell them, but they all concurred, all the officials, they got on the headset, they talked to each other, and they all agreed. They ran it by replay, and they all agreed as well. I don't know what else I can do or say."
The SEC said in a statement after the game that the crew "erroneously set the down to 3rd" after the intentional grounding penalty on first down.
"The replay booth was consulted to confirm the down prior to the punt," the statement read. "The replay booth had the down as fourth down as well. The error was discovered during the media timeout that followed the punt and by rule it could not be corrected at that time."
Carter has been an SEC official since 2010 and served as head referee for the 2019 SEC championship game.
The loss of a down ultimately did not end up costing Penn State, which improved to 3-0 with a win on the road against Wisconsin and now at home against Auburn.
"We've got a tough-minded football team," Franklin said. "Going on the road at Wisconsin is a tough place to play. We found a way to gut out a win there. And then we were able to do that again tonight. ... We have found different ways to win Week 1, Week 2, Week 3.
"Obviously being tested early in the season like this is going to be good and helpful, and we're just going to have to build on it from there. I'm pleased with where our football team is right now."