Penn State did a lot of things right Saturday in its matchup with visiting Indiana, as evidenced by the final score: 45-14. It was the Nittany Lions’ most lopsided victory of the season against a major-conference opponent, and it featured some superb contributions from the offense, defense and special teams, including a couple of dazzling moments from the human highlight reel Saquon Barkley.
But it also raised a few concerns. The offense struggled in the second and third quarters, as Indiana was able to creep back into the game after surrendering four first-quarter touchdowns. The Lions had trouble getting Barkley into open space, and when Trace McSorley tried to throw, he often found the pocket collapsing around him. Also, one of the more ominous trends of Penn State’s season – its sudden and vexing inconsistency when trying to convert seemingly makeable field goal attempts – continued unabated.
“I thought the first quarter we played really well, I thought the fourth quarter we played pretty well,” coach James Franklin said. “But I felt like we took the foot off the gas a little bit in the second and third quarters. You’ve got to give [Indiana] credit. Their head coach does a really, really good job, their guys play really hard. They’re sound, and they’ve got some tough schemes defensively. That’s [Tom Allen’s] background, and they’ve done a nice job. But we’ve got to play four-quarter football.”
Here’s a look at the good and the bad:
• The game was only 14 seconds old and already Barkley had 98 yards of total offense. He had averaged 22.9 yards on seven kickoff returns in Penn State’s first four games, but given his penchant for gobbling up big chunks of yardage whenever he gets into the open field, it was probably only a matter of time before he broke a long one.
“That’s another example of why we said we want to use Saquon Barkley as a kickoff returner,” Franklin said. “It’s a play where we know we can get the ball in his hands in space, and it’s a play that paid off for us today.”
Barkley finished with 205 all-purpose yards, including an absolutely ridiculous one-handed catch-and-run late in the first quarter that produced 36 yards and will probably be one of the highlights that Mel Kiper Jr. gushes about on draft day. He also threw a 16-yard TD pass to DaeSean Hamilton on a halfback option pass.
• Speaking of Hamilton, the senior wideout had a momentous afternoon. He caught nine passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns and in the process broke Deon Butler’s school record for most career receptions. He now has 181 catches in his career, the most recent being that touchdown catch from Barkley in the fourth quarter.
“I think he’s a great example for our younger players, a great example in general,” Franklin said. “He’s been a great leader, a great teammate, a great student. They’ve been playing football at Penn State for a long time, and there have been a bunch of great players. Whenever you can say you’re the all-time leader at Penn State, that’s pretty special.”
• Barkley’s touchdown was the first of two special teams scores for the Nittany Lions. Later in the first quarter, Nick Scott returned a fumbled punt 13 yards for a score. It was the first time since a 33-28 loss at Illinois in 2001 that Penn State had two special teams touchdowns in one game.
• The Nittany Lions went into the game ranked first in the Big Ten in takeaways and helped their cause against Indiana by amassing four more – three on fumble recoveries and one on an interception by Amani Oruwariye.
“I thought the turnovers were huge,” Franklin said. “We’ve been emphasizing that all off-season. The ones we gottonightwere mostly on tackles, with jarring hits and strips, things like that. So I’m pleased with the progress that we’re making there.”
• After giving up a couple of second-quarter touchdowns, the defense clamped down hard in the second half. Jason Cabinda was all over the field, totaling a game-high 14 tackles.
“We’re playing really good defense when you talk about scoring defense,” Franklin said. “To me, that’s the most important number that there is out there.”
• Those new “Generations of Greatness” uniforms looked sharp. They were sleek and modern but full of retro touches to keep the traditionalists happy. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of them.
The end zone diamonds were another nice nod to the past. Wouldn’t mind seeing those again, too.
• Indiana, which went into the game ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing defense at just under 200 yards per game, held Penn State to 39 rushing yards and an average of 1.1 yards per carry once McSorley’s sack yardage was factored in. Barkley had only 56 rushing yards.
“Obviously, everybody’s game plan is to stop Saquon Barkley and the run game,” Franklin said. “We have to get better in that area, but I love the fact that we have so many guys who can hurt you, like DaeSean Hamilton and a number of guys who can go out there and make plays on the perimeter.”
• The field goal unit continued to struggle. Tyler Davis sent a 21-yard attempt wide right in the third quarter, and the protection broke down on a 42-yard try in the fourth, resulting in a block. Davis is now 5 for 11 on the season, including a 3-for-7 mark from inside 40 yards.
“Obviously we’ve got to get the field goal situation cleaned up. That’s unacceptable,” Franklin said. “I’m not pleased with that at all. I don’t want this to come off the wrong way. We are going to enjoy wins around here, but there are some things we’ve got to be honest with ourselves about and get cleaned up.”
On a more positive note, six of Davis’s eight kickoffs went for touchbacks. But the field goal problems are a major concern. The day is going to come, perhaps as early as next week, when the Lions are going to need a pressure kick at the end of a game. Right now, it’s hard to feel confident in their ability to deliver, from any distance.
• Tight end Mike Gesicki left the game in the first half after getting hit on a short completion and didn’t return. For obvious reasons, that is a very large concern.
Next up: a trip to Northwestern. The Wildcats have a highly productive quarterback in junior Clayton Thorson, who went into this weekend’s action ranked first in the conference with a 265.3-yard passing average. Thorson had an up-and-down afternoon in a 33-24 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday. He threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to give the Wildcats a shot at pulling off an upset. But in the final minute of the game, he got caught in the end zone while rolling out, resulting in a safety that ended their comeback bid.
Wisconsin put a lot of heat on Thorson throughout the game, totaling eight sacks. Penn State will be looking to do likewise, and that won’t be the only objective. The Lions will need to get their running game going, and they’ll have to do it on the road.
“There are areas where we have to get better,” Franklin said. “For where we want to go and what we want to do, we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to identify those things and spend a lot of time Sunday and Monday working to find ways to get better in those areas.”