Penn State never appeared out of control during its 31-7 win over Northwestern on Saturday.
If not for a Wildcat touchdown with less than two minutes remaining, the Nittany Lions would have secured their first three-shutout season since 1978.
The story is often about Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, and the rest of Penn State’s star-studded offense. But, much like in other games this season, the Nittany Lions could not have secured this rout without a number of impact plays from the defense.
Heading into halftime, Penn State led 10-0 thanks to three forced turnovers on five drives, which often gave the offense great field position. With the running game not clicking — the Nittany Lions as a team had negative yards on the ground, which included -1 yard from the Heisman contender Barkley.
“I would say that we’re playing winning football at all three phases,” head coach James Franklin said of his team through six games. “When you’re able to do that, there could be a week where one of the units isn’t playing as well it should, and you still have a chance to overcome it.”
That is exactly what Franklin’s squad needed in the first half — for that defensive unit to come up big.
After Penn State failed on a fourth-down conversion to start the game, Northwestern received great field position and drove inside its opponent’s 10-yard line. The defense came up with a sack and a tackle for loss before redshirt junior cornerback Amani Oruwariye picked a pass off for his third interception of the season to keep the Wildcats off the board on their opening drive.
“We’re very experienced on defense, especially in the secondary,” Franklin said.
On the defensive line, Penn State managed to get to the quarterback and cause Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson some discomfort.
Defensive end Shaka Toney was the leader of the Penn State effort that sacked the quarterback four times and also had seven tackles for loss. The redshirt freshman finished with two of those sacks and a forced fumble.
“I’m real happy for [Toney]. That’s my little brother,” starting defensive end Shareef Miller said. “I’ve been carrying him under my wing and been telling him ‘your time’s going to come. When you get the opportunity, you got to make the most out of it.’ He did that today.”
Toney, who had a sack and a total of eight tackles coming into this game, has been watching his team’s defense succeed. In his first season getting game action, He is not surprised with the unit’s success.
“We knew we are one of the best defenses in the country,” Toney said. “Our aim is just to come out and prove that every single game.”
It is one thing to have the talent on paper, but the Nittany Lions have backed it up.
Penn State is tied for the national lead in forced turnovers with 17 — nine interceptions and eight fumble recoveries — so far this season. It also has given up just nine points per game, which is currently good for second in the nation.
“If you look at us, we don’t really have one thing that we’re just overpowering people,” Franklin said. “It’s not really necessarily just our D-Line or our linebackers or our secondary. It’s a little bit of all of those things. I think we’re playing really good complementary football.”
The key piece for the defense is forcing turnovers despite allowing long drives. Penn State has kept teams off the board not because it has a completely locked-down defense. It gave up more than 300 yards on three occasions this season, but has not allowed more than two touchdowns during a single game yet in 2017.
Following the bye week, Penn State will face off against the Big Ten East’s usual big three contenders — Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State, in that order. To stay unscathed, it is going to take more performances like these for the team to once again reach the Big Ten Championship.
“Now we know what’s at stake,” Miller said. “Each week, we know we’re going to get the opponent’s best, so we want to bring our A-game.”