Nittany Lions dominate Northwestern
EVANSTON, Ill. — Penn State badly wanted to earn its third shutout in six games, but even though Northwestern scored against the backups in the final minutes, it didn’t change the fact that Saturday’s contest was dominated by the “D.”
“Our defense is incredible,” Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said.
Barkley was not incredible on the day, although the Heisman Trophy frontrunner did have a big highlight on a 53-yard TD run. It didn’t matter, though, as No. 4 Penn State rolled to a 31-7 win over Northwestern at Ryan Field thanks to three forced turnovers and a record-setting feat by Trace McSorley.
The quarterback completed 15 passes in a row during one stretch, breaking the school record of 14 set by Kerry Collins in 1994.
“It’s pretty cool,” McSorley said. “I had no idea about that.”
Told he broke a record previously held by Collins, McSorley replied, “Sweet.”
McSorley finished 25-of-34 for 245 yards and one score, and he took advantage all day of Northwestern’s soft zone coverage.
“It felt like we were taking our easy throws when they were there, making good throws, pushing the ball down the field,” McSorley said. “Our receivers were doing a great job getting open against zone, separating versus man, as well, and really giving me good options to throw downfield.”
The only reason McSorley’s passing numbers weren’t more prolific was because offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead tried to stay committed to the running game, even though it struggled for much of the day.
Barkley’s final numbers were good — 16 carries for 97 yards — but he got bottled up most of the day by the Wildcats until breaking loose for his 53-yard score down the right sideline late in the third quarter.
Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) led just 10-0 at the half after coming up with a number of plays to stifle Northwestern’s offense while watching the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) shoot themselves in the foot with numerous mistakes.
With the defense playing so well, the Nittany Lions were never really threatened and had plenty of time to figure things out on offense.
“Can’t give our defense enough credit,” Lions coach James Franklin said of a unit that entered the day ranked third in the nation in points allowed per game (9.4) and actually improved on that figure.
The Lions picked off two passes by Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and also recovered a fumble. Cornerback Amani Oruwariye came up with the first big turnover as he intercepted Thorson by going up and stealing a ball from intended receiver Bennett Skowronek on the game’s opening series.
The Wildcats looked good on that first drive and had first-and-goal at the 10 before going backward 10 yards on a holding and eight yards on a sack by Curtis Cothran. Oruwariye’s interception kept Northwestern from building confidence with early points.
“It was a big momentum (boost),” Oruwariye said. “The guy kind of had his hands on it, but I got a way to grab it away from him.”
Penn State scored on its third possession but had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Tyler Davis after having first-and-goal at the 6. McSorley hit backup quarterback Tommy Stevens on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 12:04 left in the half to make it 10-0.
The offense was having some issues, but the defense kept shutting down Northwestern again and again.
“We’re just playing with a lot of confidence,” Oruwariye said of the defense. “A team with confidence is dangerous.”
In the second half, and the Lions started blowing things open as McSorley’s streak of 15 straight completions unfolded. He hit Saeed Blacknall for 38 yards to the 5, and Barkley scored over the top from a yard out to make it 17-0.
Barkley had the Heisman highlight moment late in the third quarter when he busted loose around the right side, got to the edge and raced 53 yards to the end zone.
“We’re not naive; we know a lot of teams are going to try to stop the run,” Barkley said. “It is what it is, though. We’ve got to continue to find a way to win.”
McSorley said Northwestern “did a really good job taking away our run game, adding hats to the box, blitzing probably more than we had seen on film today.”
The Lions countered with their passing game, leading Franklin to say how it’s tough to defend all phases of Penn State’s offense.
“We’re in a situation where it’s almost like pick your poison,” the coach said.
With sacks added in, Penn State finished with just 95 yards rushing and 286 through the air. They still were able to own time of possession, at 34:04 to 25:56.
McSorley scored on a 5-yard run with 8:54 remaining for a 31-0 lead.
Northwestern was able to end the shutout bid with an 80-yard drive behind backup quarterback Matt Alviti against Penn State’s second-string defense. Alviti scored from a yard out with 1:46 left.
“The only criticism I would say is our twos went in late in the game and did not live up to our standards overall,” Franklin said.
“We came on the road against a tough opponent in a tough venue and found a way to get a win,” Franklin said.