Lions’ defense rules the day again

Penn State safety Marcus Allen, right, tackles Northwestern wide receiver Riley Lees during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Penn State won 31-7. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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,” PSU 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 still rolled to a 31-7 win over Northwestern at Ryan Field thanks to stellar defense that forced three 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 75 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 and also watching the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) shoot themselves in the foot with numerous mistakes.

With the defense playing so well, the Lions were never really threatened and had plenty of time to figure things out on offense.

“Can’t give our defense enough credit,” PSU 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 backwards 10 yards on a holding and 8 yards on a sack by Curtis Cothran. Oruwariye’s interception followed and 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. … We both kind of had it, and I just kind of snatched it out of his hands. It was kind of a who wants it more kind of thing.”

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 time and again.

“We’re just playing with a lot of confidence,” Oruwariye said of the defense. “A team with confidence is dangerous.”

The strong defense continued 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.

“There was one stretch in high school where I might have been 15-for-15 in the game, 16-for-16 or something like that,” McSorley said when asked if he’s ever completed 15 straight.

Barkley had another 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 yet again how it’s tough to defend all phases of PSU’s offense.

“We’re in a situation where it’s almost like pick your poison,” the coach said.

“We did a really good job taking the throws that they were giving us outside,” McSorley said. “I felt like we had good matchups outside, and we did a good job grinding out our run game, just staying on it. We were able to pop up a couple of good runs.”

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 for the Wildcats.

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 PSU’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 of the second-string defense.

Still, it was an easy win on the road against a Northwestern team that, in the preseason, some people figured could beat the Lions.

“We came on the road against a tough opponent in a tough venue and found a way to get a win,” Franklin said.

The offense — particularly the line — didn’t have a great day, but the Lions still won a blowout because of their multitude of weapons.

“We’ve got obviously the most explosive player in college football,” Franklin said of Barkley. “We have an offense that doesn’t panic. We have coaches that don’t panic. We just kind of stick with the game plan.”