Northwestern did about as good a job as Pat Fitzgerald could have ever hoped for against Saquon Barkley on Saturday. Penn State’s star running back, who went into the game leading the Football Bowl Subdivision in all-purpose yards with an average of 243.6 per game, was able to amass only 84 against the Wildcats, and 53 of those yards came on one play – a touchdown ramble late in the third quarter.
But Barkley is a difference-maker even when he isn’t racking up yardage. With the Wildcats determined not to let him break off big runs or catch passes out of the backfield, the Lions were able to spread the ball around to an assortment of complementary playmakers, and their performance on offense, coupled with another strong outing by the defense, resulted in a comfortable 31-7 victory in Evanston.
“We came on the road against a tough opponent in a tough venue and found a way to get a win,” coach James Franklin said. “I can’t give our defense enough credit. I think after last season, the storyline was the 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. The only criticism I would have is that our twos went in late in the game and did not live up to the standard we have overall. But it’s hard to critique. Our guys are playing really well.”
With the win, the Nittany Lions are now 6-0 for the first time since 2008. Here’s a look at the good and the bad:
• The defense did a great job of keeping the heat on Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats have had trouble protecting Thorson this season, a problem that was especially acute during last week’s game against Wisconsin, in which they surrendered eight sacks. They gave up four more against Penn State, one of which produced a fumble. And even when Thorson was able to get rid of the ball, he was frequently under pressure and off-target, completing only 19 of 36 attempts for 142 yards, with two interceptions and no touchdowns.
“We’re very experienced on defense, especially in the secondary,” Franklin said. “We’re faster, no doubt about it. We’re playing with some confidence, and I think we’ve got the best coaching staff in the country when you’re talking about assistant coaches. It’s a combination of all those things.”
• Penn State remains the only FBS team to have not given up any points in the first quarter this season. This time, the defense’s success was due in large part to its opportunism. The Lions came up with two first-quarter takeaways on an interception by Amani Oruwariye and a fumble recovery by Ryan Buchholz. They finished the game with three takeaways, adding a Christian Campbell interception on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half.
• With Northwestern paying so much attention to Barkley, the Lions needed a strong game from Trace McSorley. The redshirt junior quarterback delivered. He completed 25 of 34 passes for 245 yards, with one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown and no interceptions.
“We’re going to have to throw the ball,” Franklin said. “I think at one point Trace completed 15 straight passes against what we call free access – soft coverage on the corners. We’re in a situation where it’s almost like [opponents have] got to pick their poison. I get it. People are going to try everything they can to not let Saquon Barkley beat you, but it creates a lot of opportunities for other guys.”
• Punter Blake Gillikin was once again one of Penn State’s unsung heroes. Three Northwestern drives started inside its own 20-yard line, a major factor in its inability to get anything going on offense.
• Mike Gesicki was back in action – and made Penn State’s first catch of the game – after a week of uncertainty following his injury against Indiana.
• Penn State committed only three penalties. That might not seem like an especially noteworthy factor in the game, and the Lions did have a touchdown erased in the fourth quarter when they were flagged for holding on a punt return by DeAndre Thompkins. So it’s not like they were flawless. But they were nowhere near as sloppy as Northwestern. The Wildcats were flagged eight times for 74 yards, including a pair of targeting calls that cost them two of their defensive standouts – middle linebacker Paddy Fisher and safety Godwin Igwebuike – for part of the second half (and for the first half of next week’s game against Maryland).
• This performance will definitely not alleviate concerns about Penn State’s running game heading into the most difficult stretch of the season. The Nittany Lions’ difficulties resurfaced in Evanston – and against another opponent that previously hadn’t had great success against the run. A week after rushing for 39 yards against Indiana, the Lions managed only 95 against Northwestern, which had gone into the game ranked 11th in the Big Ten in run defense at 145 yards per game.
• The Nittany Lions had some difficulty protecting McSorley. Northwestern got to him five times, and this was a defense that had totaled only six sacks in its first four games. “Obviously, you critique it. You’d like to not give up any sacks and you’d like to rush for more yards,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to improve there. But we’re critiquing a Big Ten win on the road where we scored 31 points and basically played shutout football. Do we have to get better? Yeah. … But I feel like we’re at the right point where we can go into the bye week and say, these are the things we need to improve on.”
• Tyler Davis missed another seemingly makeable field goal attempt, a 35-yarder in the fourth quarter. He is now 6 for 13 on the season.
Another year, another well-timed bye week. The Nittany Lions won’t be in action again until they welcome Michigan to Beaver Stadium on Oct. 21. The Wolverines were 4-0 and ranked seventh in the country heading into Saturday’s in-state rivalry game with Michigan State. Backup John O’Korn is now at quarterback following an injury to starter Wilton Speight, and O’Korn might still be the starter next week when the Wolverines visit Indiana.
A year ago, the Lions had an off-week heading into their matchup with Ohio State, and we all know how that worked out. This year’s team will no doubt welcome the opportunity to recuperate from some nagging injuries that have contributed to its sporadic offensive difficulties.
“We’re going to enjoy this win for a few hours, and then we’re going to go into the bye week,” Franklin said. “The bye week will be about our academics. The bye week will be about getting as healthy as we possibly can be. There will be a little bit of young player development as part of our bye week. They’ll have their own practice. And then obviously we’ll spend some time cleaning up things that have given us issues on offense, defense and special teams. What are the themes? What are the things that we see that everyone is doing against us? Let’s clean those things up and then get a head start on that next opponent.”