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No. 4 Penn State-Northwestern observations: Slow start, big finish for Barkley

BOX SCORE

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern was determined to keep Saquon Barkley from deciding the game Saturday and, for a while, it worked.

That was just fine by Trace McSorley and the Penn State defense.

McSorley threw for 245 yards and a touchdown and ran in another while the No. 4 Nittany Lions had three takeaways in a 31-7 win over the Wildcats. 

Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) ended Northwestern’s first two drives with turnovers — an Armani Oruwariye pick deep in his own territory and Kevin Givens’ fumble recovery — before the offense got on track. McSorley found backup QB Tommy Stevens for a 10-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter for a 10-0 halftime lead. 

The Lions forced three-and-outs on Northwestern’s first two drives of the second half and didn’t allow the Wildcats into the end zone until the final two minutes of the game.

McSorley was 25 for 35 before coach James Franklin pulled him late in the game and Barkley, who came into the game with four games of 200 or more all-purpose yards, didn’t fill the stat sheet in his usual fashion but added a pair of touchdown runs in the third quarter to turn the game into a rout.

Northwestern, playing its Big Ten home opener, fell to 2-3 and 0-2 in the conference.

• Penn State got its third and final turnover of the first half when Christian Campbell snared Clayton Thorson’s heave at the goal line. The Northwestern quarterback was sacked three times in the opening half, including a hit by Shaka Toney that forced the fumble late in the first quarter.

Thorson ended the day 19 for 36 for 142 yards and was sacked four times. 

• Barkley had just four net yards after his first 12 carries but made run No. 13 more than lucky. He found a hole late in the third quarter and dashed untouched for a 53-yard touchdown to give the Nittany Lions a 24-0 lead and turn the game into a rout. 

He got his first touchdown earlier in the third on a one-yard dive over the goal line and finished the game with 75 yards on 16 carries and a pair of catches for nine yards.

• McSorley took a glancing shot to the head from Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher after a third-quarter pass but was not injured. Fisher was flagged for roughing and ejected after a replay review confirmed the initial call of targeting.

Wildcats safety Godwin Igwebuike was sent off in the fourth quarter after officials flagged him for targeting running back Miles Sanders with his helmet. McSorley scored on a five-yard keeper two plays later.

• Those weren’t the only penalties that greatly helped Penn State extend drives. A pass interference call put the ball at the Northwestern 6 and led to the Lions’ first points, a 21-yard Tyler Davis field goal. 

Davis missed a 35-yard attempt late in the game.

• Penn State’s first drive ended when McSorley couldn’t leg out a fourth-down conversion, then the Lions allowed Northwestern to extend the ensuing drive with a 24-yard fourth-down pass. The Wildcats had a first down at the Lions’ 10, but a holding penalty, Curtis Cothran’s sack and Oruwariye’s interception left the hosts with nothing to show on the scoreboard.

It was the deepest the Wildcats drove all afternoon.

• Penn State almost had its second conference road shutout in less than a year. The Lions blanked Rutgers 39-0 on Nov. 19.

• It should be a happy film session when the Nittany Lions return home: They committed just two penalties — a pair of holding calls after Northwestern punts — while the outcome was in doubt. The drive that followed Penn State’s first yellow flag ended with McSorley’s first touchdown pass.

• The Lions’ third penalty didn’t come until midway through the final period but did prove costly. A holding call negated DeAndre Thompkins’ 74-yard punt return for a touchdown.

• The Big Ten leaders in scoring defense (9.0 points per game) still have not allowed a first-quarter touchdown this season. Northwestern’s only score came with 1:54 to play, long after both teams rested their starters.

• Initial forecasts called for persistent rain Saturday but it never played a factor. The field was damp, but far from soggy at kickoff and showers held off until the final whistle.

• The Lions take a week off before beginning a stretch of games that should decide whether they’ll keep the Big Ten East division title. They welcome No. 7 Michigan to Happy Valley on Oct. 21 seeking to erase memories of last season’s 49-10 loss and snap a three-game losing streak against the Wolverines.

Penn State visits 10th-ranked Ohio State a week later.