At the beginning of the year, Northwestern was the sexy pick by some experts to edge out Wisconsin in the Big Ten West division. I didn’t buy this, as many of those picks are made just to fabricate buzz with no real belief in the choice. It did appear, though, that Northwestern was about to take a step forward. For the second straight week, Penn State exceeded our preseason prediction, which called for Penn State to win 23-6. For much of the first half, it seemed like 23 points was too many, but the depth, talent and a great defensive performance pounded away at the Wildcats, who eventually succumbed 31-7.
No penalties for the second team giving up a garbage-time touchdown; this unit was air tight all day, and made Northwestern’s offense and QB Clayton Thorson look totally hopeless the entire game. The Lions created 3 turnovers registered 4 sacks among 7 tackles for loss. But it was the polish and swagger with which the defense played that was the most noticeable. Showing no respect for a vertical passing game, S Marcus Allen seemed excited to get some much time near the line of scrimmage, and finished tied for the team lead in tackles in the game. The secondary was in perfect position all day, and contained Northwestern’s running game all day. At worst a preseason unknown, Brent Pry’s squad is providing further evidence that Penn State has the talent on both sides of the ball to compete at the highest level.
Defensive Game Ball: CB Grant Haley
Haley has begun to gain notoriety as a premier shut-down corner in all of college football. Haley led the team with 3 passes defended, and provided a clinic for how to play his position all game long. He should begin getting national attention if his play continues at a high level against the elite teams in the conference.
P Blake Gillikin again created a great field position advantage, with most of Penn State’s drives starting past its own 40 yard line. There wasn’t much in the way of a return game (DeAndre Thompkins had a nice punt return TD called back on a penalty), but Tyler Davis again missed a short field goal. It was a windy day, but you have to wonder how much confidence the coaches have on the kicking game anymore. With the difficulty they had scoring touchdowns in the red zone and on 3rd down, they need to shore up field goals with the Big Boys coming up later this month.
Special Teams Game Ball: P Blake Gillikin
At this point, Gillikin should be on the short list for the Ray Guy Award.
Another road game, another flavor of adversity for the Nittany Lions. Northwestern clearly developed a game plan to try to eliminate Saquon Barkley from the game. After looking at the scouting film, I’m sure Pat Fitzgerald couldn’t stomach his defense getting torched by Barkley. To their credit, Barkley was neutralized for most of the game. Only after LB Paddy Fisher was ejected for targeting did Saquon finally break loose for a long TD run. But after several frustrating drives, Trace McSorley was finally given license to push the ball to the receivers. McSorley had a great game, completing nearly 75% of his passes to 9 different receivers. A week after DaeSean Hamilton broke out, Saeed Blacknall tallied a game-high 74 yards, and DeAndre Thompkins tied Juwan Johnson for the team lead with 6 catches. Brandon Polk had some notable clutch receptions as well. McSorley took what was available, and made Northwestern pay dearly for their decision to key on Barkley. The offensive line, looking shaky of late, played better as the game went on with a more traditional passing game.
Offensive Game Ball: QB Trace McSorley
McSorley quieted critics that said he was regressing without Chris Godwin. His accuracy was off at times, but he delivered under pressure and added timely runs to keep drives going. He is a winner, and was able to adjust in the middle of the first half when the read option was proven ineffective.
The coaches were surprised when they were unable to run the ball at all in the first half. But, they adjusted during the game and leveraged their fleet of sure-handed receivers. The defense was again very good, not allowing a first quarter point and shutting out Northwestern’s first team offense. They do have work to do with the offensive line and field goal team. Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead made a great play call and design on the touchdown to secret weapon Tommy Stevens.
It’s tough to not be thrilled at the first half of the season, as #4 Penn State enters their bye week a perfect 6-0 with their running back the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. The conference looks weaker than initially thought, with Michigan joining Ohio State at one loss overall after falling to unranked Michigan State. The Lions control their destiny, and begin the second half of the year trying to avenge last year’s loss to Michigan in two weeks.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn