EVANSTON, Ill. — A surging second half and a gritty defensive effort wiped away an ugly first-half performance for No. 4 Penn State in its 31-7 win over Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field.
The Nittany Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) were never really in jeopardy of losing the contest, but the supposedly dynamic offense fell flat for much of the first half, leaving some level of concern for how the team would fare moving forward.
Heisman frontrunner Saquon Barkley had -1 rushing yards on eight first-half carries as the offensive line once again had trouble giving him room to run.
But as the saying goes, the best running backs can’t be stopped; they can only be contained. So was the case for Barkley on Saturday.
“That’s what happens when you’re the best player in the country,” tight end Mike Gesicki said of Barkley. “Teams are going to key in on you and try to stop you. But ultimately, they aren’t going to stop you.”
Barkley’s first carry of the second half was a 1-yard leap into the end zone to give the Nittany Lions a 17-0 lead. Then, late in the third quarter, he bounced around in the backfield before hitting the sideline for a 53-yard touchdown run.
Incredibly, Barkley finished the game with 75 rushing yards on 16 carries.
“Obviously, everybody spent the entire offseason coming up with a game plan to try and limit us offensively,” coach James Franklin said. “We have enough weapons that if people are going to overload the box … we’re going to have to throw the ball.”
And that’s exactly what Penn State did as quarterback Trace McSorley dominated for much of the game.
At one point, McSorley completed 15 consecutive passes. He finished with 25 completions on 34 passes with 245 yards and one touchdown. He added another touchdown on the ground before he was removed midway through the fourth quarter with the game all but officially secured.
Penn State’s offensive line performed much better in pass protection, giving McSorley plenty of time in the pocket. As a result, his passes were more crisp than they’ve been in any game this season.
Last season, the Nittany Lions were known for their offense, and it was hard to imagine they’d win in comfortable fashion if even one of their playmakers went cold.
However, the defense is much improved from 2016, which gives the offense some leeway. If not for a late Northwestern (2-3, 0-2) touchdown against the Penn State backups, the Nittany Lions would’ve pitched their third shutout in six games this season.
“When you watch us, we’re not a suffocating defense where we take every yard away,” Franklin said. “But the most important thing is we keep people out of the end zone, and we create turnovers.”
Opponents are averaging nine points against the Nittany Lions. After three more Saturday, the Penn State defense has forced 17 turnovers.
Receiver Saeed Blacknall said the most important part of this game was that the offense did not play as well as it should have, yet the Nittany Lions still scored plenty.
“That’s scary because we didn’t have our best game, and we still put up 31 points,” Blacknall said. “Wow, how many points did we leave out there?
“When we correct those mistakes, the roof is — we won’t even have a roof.”
Matt Martell is a freelance writer.