EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern did all it could to keep Saquon Barkley from dominating the stat sheet Saturday afternoon, but it hardly fazed Barkley’s teammates.
Penn State’s stingy defense nearly posted another shutout and quarterback Trace McSorley made the most of the extra attention Barkley got by throwing for 250 yards and a touchdown to keep the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions perfect with a 31-7 victory (see observations).
The running back and Heisman Trophy candidate clearly is a huge part of Penn State’s attack, but the Lions spent most of the afternoon showing he’s hardly the only part.
The national leaders in scoring defense (9.0 points per game) held the Wildcats scoreless until the game was far out of reach and sent Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) into a three-week stretch that could decide whether it’ll get a chance to defend its conference title.
After the coming bye week, the Lions welcome Michigan to Happy Valley, then visit Ohio State a week later.
Coach James Franklin wouldn’t take questions about Michigan but seemed pleased with his team’s performance as it gets ready for its biggest game of the season.
“Can’t give our defense enough credit,” Franklin said after the unit had three takeaways and four sacks.
Cornerback Armani Oruwariye set the tone with an early interception that stymied a long Northwestern drive and defensive end Shaka Toney (two sacks) forced a fumble that ended another Wildcats possession. The hosts never threatened again until the game was well in hand.
“We have a standard,” Oruwariye said. “In the second half, I don’t know how many three-and-outs we had (five), but it was a lot.
“For them to even get a first down, we were pissed off, so we came back and responded.”
Penn State started the day 13th nationally in total defense, 13 spots behind No. 7 Michigan. Safe to say the matchup could be a draw on that side of the ledger.
McSorley showed, however, that stopping Barkley won’t be enough if teams hope to upend the Lions.
He set a new school record with 15 straight completions spanning the first three quarters (one better than Kerry Collins in 1994) and passed the Lions out of trouble several times after Barkley was bottled up by a Northwestern defense clearly keying on the running back.
“Our receivers were doing a great job getting open against the zone,” he said. “We felt really good with our preparation this week. At that point, it was just about executing.”
McSorley, who threw for 245 yards in a 25-for-34 afternoon, also ran 12 times when holes opened up.
Barkley was a blocker almost as much as he was a ball carrier early in the game but still showed some electricity when he found a hole and darted untouched for a 53-yard third-quarter touchdown that turned the game into a rout.
“We’re definitely a lot more balanced. We’re not having those games where we’re throwing for 300 and running for 40 or rushing for 250 and throwing for 75. We had games last year like that,” McSorley said.
“It helps everyone get into the flow of the game better because as an offense we feel like we can be more successful.”
Barkley finished the day with 75 net yards on 16 carries and caught a pair of passes for nine yards. He had 200 or more all-purpose yards in four of Penn State’s first five games.
“The thing that’s great is we have enough weapons,” Franklin said. “We’re going to have to throw the ball. We’re in a situation where it’s almost like you’ve got to pick your poison.
“I get it. People are going to try everything they possibly can to not allow Saquon Barkley to beat you, but it creates a lot of opportunities for other guys.”
And that might be the most encouraging factor as the Nittany Lions prepare for the Wolverines. The best offense probably wins that game and Penn State seems intent on proving its offense is much more than just Barkley.
Michigan has won three straight over the Lions, including last season’s 49-10 blowout that left the only blemish on Penn State’s Big Ten record.
Another bit of positive news for the offense: Tight end Mike Gisicki, who left last week’s win over Indiana with an injury, was back on the field and had a pair of catches against Northwestern. Franklin said he expects the senior to be ready for Michigan.
No Penn State players appeared to suffer injuries during Saturday's game.