Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense has been turning heads for over a year and getting a great deal of attention as Penn State rises toward the top of the college football rankings. Without a great defense, however, any momentum built on offense would be susceptible to failure if the ball bounces the wrong way. On Saturday it took a while for the offense to get going, and while it calculated its course through the Northwestern defense, it was once again the defensive side of the ball that kept the Lions in the lead.
Penn State held the ball for ten plays on the first possession of the game but came up short of scoring points when Trace McSorley was stopped on a 4th and 8 from the Northwestern 39 yard line. On the Wildcats ensuing drive, they took the ball and went all the way down the field, gaining a first and goal from the ten yard line. That’s where the Lions’ defense stiffened. Curtis Cothran came unblocked up the middle for a sack and large loss. Linebacker Jason Cabinda stepped up late to rush and the offensive guard blocked him, while the tackle ran right past Cothran.
It’s likely that the timing of Cabinda’s movement caused confusion on the Wildcat line, while defensive end Ryan Buchholz ran inside, drawing the tackle away from Cothran as well. This tiny wrinkle in Brent Pry’s defense made a significant play when the team needed it.
On second down, from the 28 yard line, Justin Jackson was stuffed for no gain. On the outer edges of field goal range, Northwestern took a risk and tried to throw the ball downfield. Amani Oruwariye made them regret that decision, as he ran the route better than the receiver, stepping in front for the interception. Defensive end Shaka Toney’s rush on the right edge and long right arm affected the throw as well.
Oruwariye jumped slightly early, but he was able to float in the air long enough to stay in position to make the play. Rather than high-pointing the ball, he figured that he would catch it on the way down. He has to mix it up a little bit now that he is intercepting nearly one pass per game played. It was Oruwariye’s third interception of the season in just his fourth game played. The defensive stop boosted the team, keeping Northwestern from putting points on the board following a long, unsuccessful Penn State drive.
Unfortunately for Joe Moorhead and his potent offense, the machine was stuck in neutral on the next drive, going three and out. It was once again up to the defensive side of the ball to gain momentum for the team. It didn’t take long for Shaka Toney to make another impact on the game. No. 18 came around the edge with speed and power, causing a fumble and ending the scoring threat. Toney had an impressive game, adding another sack late in the first half. We are starting to see young defensive ends such as Toney and Shane Simmons not just gain playing time, but also becoming productive players for the team.
Penn State was able to break through on the scoreboard, with Tyler Davis adding a field goal on the next drive. The defense once again held Northwestern off the board on the next drive. The Lions got points on two consecutive drives when Tommy Stevens caught a touchdown pass from Trace McSorley the next time they had the ball.
The Wildcats answered the Penn State score with a long drive of their own. The drive stalled out just outside of field goal range once again. This time, facing a 4th and 3 on the 33 yard line, Marcus Allen and Shane Simmons played the option perfectly. No. 2 Allen took the pitch man and No. 34 Simmons ran to the quarterback. Their discipline in staying with their assignment was critical all day in keeping the Wildcats in check. Notice No. 40 Jason Cabinda at middle linebacker, making his way through defenders, ready to pounce were Allen and Simmons unable to make the tackle.
The Lions punted the ball away on the next possession, giving one last chance for the Wildcats to put points on the board, heading to halftime down just one possession. With 42 seconds on the clock, driving to the Penn State 36, Northwestern was feeling pretty good about themselves. During a timeout break, the Wildcat Dance Team demonstrated how to look very comfortable while dancing the latest moves. I’m pretty sure that the dance they are doing is called the ‘towel-shoulder stiff hip double-dip,’ but you probably should check with someone under the age of forty for the official name.
The Penn State defense defended its territory, not allowing the Wildcats to advance further down the field. The dancing on the Wildcat sideline came to a halt as order was restored on the field. Shaka Toney made his second sack a play later. Penn State fans can get used to watching him play like this in the coming years.
Christian Campbell intercepted the final play of the first half to preserve the ten point lead for the Lions. Only one Northwestern possession of the first seven in the second half lasted more than three downs, and that was a four-play drive. Brent Pry’s defense rallied to the ball on every play, surrounding the Wildcats, smothering every angle of retreat.
It was a steady stream of plays such as the one above in the second half. The Penn State defense played a complete game, while its more ballyhooed partner on the offensive side again took a while to figure things out. It’s time that we acknowledge that there is more than one superstar coordinator on the squad; Brent Pry has the Penn State defense playing fast and with confidence.
Early in the fourth quarter, with a tiny sliver of hope remaining for a Northwestern comeback, Ryan Buchholz and company slammed the door with a sack in the shadows of the goal post. Remember when we were concerned about depth and talent along the defensive end ranks? It seems like so long ago. Torrence Brown went down with an injury a month ago, and the young defensive ends have stepped up in his absence.
Late in the game Northwestern scored a touchdown to break the shutout against players that seldom see the field for Penn State; the game was already in hand. The defense executed its game plan, picking up the slack for the offense as it found its footing.