For the past three weeks inclusive, there’s been a reason for concern for the Penn State faithful: Against Iowa, it was the night atmosphere at Kinnick, and their uncanny ability to beat top 10 teams at home. Against Indiana, it was their ability to sling the ball around and their uncanny ability to contain Saquon Barkley. This week, it’s James Franklin’s record against Pat Fitzgerald.
Dating back to his time at Vanderbilt, Franklin is 0-3 against Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats. In 2012, Northwestern overwhelmed Franklin’s Commodores for a 23-13 win. In 2014, the infamous OL-blocking-each-other fiasco led to a 29-6 loss. In 2015, a last-second field goal once again gave the Wildcats the win. Franklin had been looking for that elusive win for five years. It was long overdue.
Another fear coming into the game was the early start, an 11 AM local time kickoff that could have proven to be detrimental for the Nittany Lions. And, at least for the offense, it proved to be the case. Penn State needed the entirety of the first quarter to get going. Saquon Barkley was held in check, ending the quarter with one yard rushing.
Lucky for the Lions, the defense was awake and ready to go from the start. When they weren’t harassing Clayton Thorson, they were bottling up Justin Jackson at the line of scrimmage. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Wildcats, as they were able to move the ball enough to get into Penn State territory, but the defense made sure that this is all they did. Northwestern’s first two drives ended up in turnovers, allowing the Lions to maintain their first quarter shutout streak alive.
I’d love to scapegoat the offensive line today, but the reason for the offense’s woes, especially in the first half, were directly tied to play calling. It’s easy to say “oh just pass the ball” when the running game is isn’t working, but Northwestern’s only goal in this game was to stop Saquon Barkley at all costs. The Wildcat defense kept crashing the lane, selling everything else out to make sure that the Heisman candidate didn’t punish them with his legs. Yet, for some reason, Penn State kept running the same option look that continued to fail time after time. How can one expect to soften the defense when the defense has no reason to let up?
Luckily Joe Moorhead is not an idiot, and he immediately switched the gameplan in the second half. Moorhead used Northwestern’s aggressiveness against them, faking to Barkley on several plays that led to long, sustained drives to the air. They of course were never going to plan on completely taking Barkley out of the game, and Northwestern wasn’t going to bottle him up all day either. After a first half where he ended up with negative one yards, Barkley finally found a hole for 53 yards to get himself on the board for the second time.
If there was any doubt that this defense is one of the best in recent memory, let this game be Exhibit F. The Lions did just about everything you could hope for against the Wildcats, making life difficult for Thorson and Jackson for the entirety of their game. Northwestern wouldn’t see the scoreboard until well into the fourth quarter, when the third-team defense was on the field. Penn State, once again, got multiple turnovers, setting up the offense with great field position. Even when the offense needs some time to adjust, the defense will be there to hold down the fort.
Play time, for all intents and purposes, is over for the Nittany Lions. The next four weeks will bring the toughest stretch of the Penn State season, and we will definitely know what this team is made of. If the first six weeks are any indication, we’re in for a fun ride.
Penn State gets the week off to rest and hopefully work out some kinks along the offensive line, and will host Michigan two Saturdays from now, on October 21st. Game time and network to be determined.