EVANSTON, Ill. - James Franklin wanted no part of an inevitable look ahead.
His Nittany Lions, fresh from a 31-7 win at Northwestern Saturday afternoon, head into their bye week an unbeaten 6-0. The defense was again outstanding, the special teams units continued its run of solid performances, and the Nittany Lion offense was, as Franklin put it, good enough to win.
“Overall we came on the road against a tough opponent in a tough venue and found a way to get a win,” said Franklin. “I can't give our defense enough credit. I think after last season the storyline was our exciting offense and I'm pleased with our offense, we're scoring enough points to win which is the most important thing, but our defense has been playing unbelievable. I would say shutout football.”
Of course, the final score did not indicate a shutout, but to the mind of Franklin, the effort was close enough.
Relenting its only points of the afternoon with the second-team defense on the field late in the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions produced its sixth game in which an opponent failed to score even 20 points. Third nationally in scoring defense at 9.4 points per game coming into the afternoon, the Nittany Lions will improve to a flat 9.0 points per game average after the win.
“We're very experienced on defense, especially in the secondary. We're faster as a defense. There's no doubt about it. I think were playing with some confidence. I think we have the best coaching staff in the country,” said Franklin. “I think it’s just a combination of all these things. It's not really one thing. If you look at us we don't really have one thing that we're overpowering people. iI's not necessarily just our d-line, just our linebackers, just our secondary. It's a little bit of all these things. I think we're playing really good complementary football.”
Saturday afternoon, the Lions demonstrated the point to great success.
With three takeaways in the first half, the unit increased its total for the season to 17, leading the Big Ten and No. 3 in the country.
Amani Oruwariye, who opened the string of takeaways for the Nittany Lions, said much of it has to do with the confidence of coming off a strong 2016 season and a summer of taking that realization into account. Translating that confidence into on-field success, he added, is simply a matter of doing what takes place in practice on a weekly basis.
“Our coaches are telling us, taking chances in practice because it’s practice,” said Oruwariye, who now has three interceptions for the season. “We take those chances jumping our routes, trying to make big plays. Once it gets easy in practice, it carries over to the game.”
Though Penn State’s takeaways have been an important piece of the team’s defensive success, it’s ability to limit offenses in totality has been equally critical.
Allowing 265 yards of total offense to the Wildcats, the Nittany Lions permitted just 15 first downs and, inarguably more important, kept the hosts out of the end zone until the end in spite of four first half possessions in Penn State territory.
“When you watch us we're not as suffocating a defense where we take every yard away on the field, but the most important thing is we keep people out of the end zone and we create turnovers,” said Franklin. “On offense we do a pretty good job of protecting the football. That's a pretty good combination.”
Riding the wave of that combination, running back Saquon Barkley left Ryan Field as a happy man Saturday despite a snapped string of 100-plus yard games in all-purpose yardage.
Held to 75 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, plus two receptions for only 9 yards and no kickoff return yardage, Barkley was not fazed. Instead, Barkley was unabashedly excited for the performances of his teammates on the opposite side of the ball.
“Our defense is incredible,” said Barkley. “They're just all-around a great defense. Their defensive line is amazing. They can get to the quarterback. They can stop the run. Our DBs have been playing great. In all phases of the game we've been playing really well.”