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44 Random Thoughts on Northwestern

Random musings on the weekend that was in Evanston

Penn State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Northwestern Wildcats engaged in a contest of American football at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. The Nittany Lions emerged victorious by the score of 31-7. I have some thoughts, which are randomly set forth below:

  1. Last week...
  2. “In other news, I think we can all agree that the “slow starts” thing is basically a thing of the past. That’s not to say that Penn State will score at will in every single game as soon as it kicks off, but this was pretty good evidence that we don’t need to be overly worried about sleepy noon kicks.”
  3. Also...
  4. “Ask me this time next week how I feel about that statement after the Northwestern game.”
  5. You would think that after 6 years of writing about sports on the internet that I would have known better than to make definitive statements about things.
  6. If you thought that, you would be wrong.
  7. So Penn State’s vaunted offense scored a grand total of 3 points in the first quarter against the Wildcats. That made me look really good, guys.
  8. Seriously though, the sleepy noon kick in Evanston is very much alive and well. I can’t imagine a tougher place to play in that circumstance. Ryan Field and its 40,000 fans lull you to sleep, but playing in Evanston is not the same as playing in West Lafayette during the Darrell Hazell era, for instance. In that scenario, you could count on overwhelming Purdue with athletes even if the team didn’t play very well. That’s not true for Northwestern.
  9. Say what you will about Pat Fitzgerald (and plenty has been said), but Northwestern teams come ready to play. This is not a great team. It’s not even a great Northwestern team. It does have solid skill talent and the capacity to put a scare into people.
  10. Clayton Thorson is decent and Justin Jackson is excellent. Still, you need people to block for you.
  11. Honestly, the offense didn’t even come out particularly flat on Saturday. That’s what’s so odd about the whole situation. In fact, I was perfectly satisfied with most of the first drive.
  12. Not that it matters, but I really thought Juwan Johnson had come down in bounds on the first play. I haven’t bothered to look at it since, so I’m sure I’m wrong.
  13. The intent on coming out slinging the ball was clearly to take the defensive pressure off of Saquon Barkley, particularly in the wake of last Saturday’s tough rushing stretch against the Indiana Hoosiers. Unfortunately, that presumes a defense that rationally reacts to actual, and not hypothetical, offensive strategy.
  14. I should have known there would be issues with the rushing attack throughout the day as soon as the announce team began referencing Northwestern’s defensive strategy against Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in 2015. That Northwestern team, which finished the season ranked, limited McCaffrey to 66 yards on 12 carries.
  15. Notably, that Northwestern team, which featured freshman Clayton Thorson and sophomore Justin Jackson playing significant roles, held the Cardinal to 6 points in its upset win.
  16. Presumably, Northwestern put together the same defensive strategy to deal with Saquon Barkley. It was, to put it mildly, less effective.
  17. Congratulations to Northwestern for making sure that they weren’t posterized by the Human Highlight Reel for the first half. I’m sure that made the 10-0 halftime deficit feel much better.
  18. Unfortunately for coach Fitz and the Tantrums, you can only hold Barkley down for so long before he jump cuts you out of your cleats and leaves you flailing in the dust wondering what happened. In sum, he can make your hands clap.
  19. I saw plenty of hot takes about announcing this weekend, but honestly, I’m not sure why. I like Steve Levy and think Brian Griese does a really nice job as a commentator. Not to mention Griese was overwhelmingly complimentary of Penn State on several occasions. Hell, before kickoff, he compared the Truth to Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, and Adrian Peterson rolled into one.
  20. Not bad at all.
  21. I did disagree with them in one critical respect. The announce team tried to compare Northwestern’s defensive effort to Iowa’s, but I found them to be completely different schools of thought. Iowa let Barkley feast the entire game but protected themselves from McSorley’s long ball power. In contrast, Northwestern decided to use a game plan identical to Indiana’s last week.
  22. You’ll note that Iowa lost by 2 points on a last second touchdown pass. Northwestern and Indiana lost by multiple scores. But I guess Northwestern and Indiana can take solace in the fact that Barkley’s “Heisman performance” didn’t come at their expense. Whatever makes you sleep better.
  23. Homer alert. I actually think this weekend made Barkley’s case for the Heisman much stronger. Here’s a guy who garners so much attention from opposing defenses that he opens up space for every other skill player in Penn State’s offense. Including the backup quarterback. Despite all of the focus, he still broke a 53 yard touchdown run and scored by leaping over top of the entire Wildcat defense.
  24. Because of his immense skill alone, Barkley’s team won by 24 points and beat the spread by 9.5. And there’s still room for improvement!
  25. I understand that Joe Moorhead’s RPO offense exchanges lost yardage for a plethora of big plays downfield. I also understand that on the average play, an offensive line in this system doesn’t play stereotypical “man ball” because they have to be careful not to block too far downfield if McSorley pulls up and looks to pass.
  26. Still, we have short yardage concerns that are real and need to be addressed. The second drive offered a great example. On 3rd and 1, everyone and their mother knew the ball was going to Saquon Barkley. By the time the ball was in Saquon’s hands, multiple defenders were a yard or more behind the line of scrimmage. Sure, if Barkley can beat all those defenders on one cut, he’s home free for an 81 yard score. On the other hand, he was buried in the backfield for a three yard loss, and Penn State was forced to go to super secret weapon Blake Gillikin to punt the ball away.
  27. I’m not going to suggest that this is an issue that’s going to lose us a game on its own, but converting on short yardage runs would do lots of things - give the offense and offensive line confidence, keep drives alive and keep the ball out of the hands of opposing offenses, and allow Penn State more control over the game.
  28. Every now and then, teams will make stops on short yardage plays. That happens, but I shouldn’t be nervous that Penn State won’t score when they have 1st and goal inside the 5.
  29. Heck, I’m nervous Penn State won’t even score 3 points on 1st and goal inside the 5.
  30. Seriously, what is going on with the kicking game? Compared to the short yardage runs, this is absolutely something that is going to cost us a game against Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, or, God willing, Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
  31. Coach Franklin noted Mike Gesicki’s participation this week in his post-game presser. The good news is that Gesicki was active. I wonder, though, if he was limited. That was a pretty low key stat line for him.
  32. This is your weekly reminder that Penn State’s secondary is the best in the country. It’s definitely the best we’ve had in decades.
  33. We had a conversation in the comments about this earlier this week. The closest performing secondary to 2017’s was from 2005, which featured Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips at corner with Calvin Lowry and Chris Harrell at safety.
  34. That 2005 secondary was exceptional. Zemaitis was a terrific zone corner, Phillips was excellent in man coverage, and Lowry and Harrell hit hard and played centerfield well.
  35. That said, the 2005 crew had the luxury of having one of the most accomplished defensive lines in Penn State history creating pressure that led to turnovers. The 2005 defensive line featured Tamba Hali, Jay Alford, Ed Johnson, Scott Paxson, and Matt Rice, all of whom I believe spent some time on NFL rosters. They were pass rushing terrors.
  36. 2017’s secondary doesn’t have the same luxury, although Shaka Toney and Shareef Miller will have something to say about that by the end of their careers in blue and white. Tremendous performances by both ends against a Northwestern line that gave them the opportunities they needed.
  37. I’ll miss watching Marcus Allen next year. He’s playing out of his mind as a senior, flying around to the ball and just causing all sorts of havoc.
  38. We all know about Grant Haley’s exploits, which were on full display against Northwestern. You have to be pleased, though, with both Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye as well.
  39. Keep in mind that all three of these players were three star recruits. Talent scouting and development has played such a huge role in putting Penn State in a position to be successful.
  40. This game was never in doubt, which is exactly what you hope for here. The end of the game, though, left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. In the last few minutes, we had a called back punt return touchdown, a missed chip shot field goal, and lost the shut out.
  41. I’m never going to be one of those people that complains about a 20 point win, but winning 41-0 would have been really nice.
  42. A good, if boring, victory. Just what the doctor ordered. Let’s rest up and get ready to rock and roll against Michigan at night.
  43. On to the bye week. Please don’t lose this one.
  44. We are...