Gordie Jones

No. 4 Penn State at Northwestern: Trying to stay perfect before facing the big boys

No. 4 Penn State at Northwestern: Trying to stay perfect before facing the big boys

No. 4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) at Northwestern (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten)
Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
Saturday, noon, ABC

Scouting Penn State
The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions drubbed Indiana, 45-14, last week, as Saquon Barkley returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, helping PSU establish a 28-0 first-quarter lead. Barkley, tops in the FBS in all-purpose yards per game (243.6), had 205 in the game. The Lions, however, managed just 39 yards on the ground on 37 attempts, and are seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (179.0). They also allowed five sacks last week and have surrendered 11 to date, putting them in the middle of the conference pack in that department. Right tackle has been the trouble spot. Chasz Wright and Andrew Nelson have been slowed by injuries, leaving the position in the hands of redshirt freshman Will Fries, who began the season as the backup on the left side. 

Scouting Northwestern
The Wildcats, down 31-10 with 9:54 left in last week’s game at Wisconsin, cut the gap to seven but could get no closer in a 33-24 loss. Clayton Thorson threw for 219 yards and three touchdowns, but he was intercepted twice and sacked for a safety late in the game, sealing the verdict. Star running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for 1,524 yards last year but has picked up just 273 (4.3 per carry) this fall, left the game with a leg injury but is expected to play this week. Linebacker Paddy Fisher has 37 tackles and safety Godwin Igwbuike has contributed 29, as well as an interception. The Wildcats are, however, 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed (25.3), 11th in yards allowed (384.3) and 11th in rushing yards allowed (145.0).

History
Penn State leads the all-time series, 13-5, but the Wildcats have won the last two meetings, in 2014 and ’15. PSU coach James Franklin is, in fact, 0-3 against Northwestern, having also dropped a meeting while the head man at Vanderbilt. 

Storyline to watch
The weather. Rain is in the forecast today in Evanston, and that could serve as something of an equalizer.

What's at stake
The Lions are looking to keep their ducks in a row heading into their bye week, with games against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State to follow.

Prediction
Penn State 28, Northwestern 16

In tough preseason opener, Markelle Fultz sees early taste of 'everybody's best shot'

In tough preseason opener, Markelle Fultz sees early taste of 'everybody's best shot'

Happily for Markelle Fultz, his preseason debut with the 76ers not only doesn’t count; it was barely counted.

A glitch with the stat system delayed delivery of the official box score. But in time, it appeared, in all its ugliness. In time there was confirmation that Fultz shot 2 for 13 and scored four points as the Sixers, minus Joel Embiid, lost to the Grizzlies, minus Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, by a 110-89 score Wednesday (see observations).

Nobody seemed too concerned about that, least of all Fultz himself.

“Everybody has a night like that,” the rookie guard said. “It’s a long season. There’s going to be times when your shot’s not falling.”

Fultz made his first attempt, a backdoor lefty layup from Ben Simmons (more on him here), and his next-to-last try, an uncontested dunk off a feed from T.J. McConnell. In between, he missed 10 straight — three of them three-pointers, but most of the others within 10 feet of the rim.

Twice he was blocked by 6-foot-10 Deyonta Davis. Other times he couldn’t quite coax his shots home. As Brett Brown said, “He’s going into a whole different treeline.”

Bigger and more athletic than the ones the No. 1 overall pick saw in his lone collegiate season at Washington. Takes some getting used to.

Conley, one of the league’s finest point guards, knows all about it.

“We all go through it,” he said, having rested and looked on from the bench. “It’s just a stage.”

Finishing is just part of the learning process for Fultz. There is also the adjustment to playing off the ball, playing alongside Simmons and facing down all the old heads who will surely test him.

And doing all that at age 19.

“He’s raw right now,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said, “and everybody is going to go after him because he is the No. 1 pick. That’s to be expected.”

Before the game, Fizdale praised Fultz’s maturity, extolled the virtues of his “grown-up game.” That, the coach added, will carry him through.

“He’ll settle in and his talent will pick up,” Fizdale said, “but there are a lot of guys where their first few games in this league, people are hunting for them just to test them out. He’ll go through his bumps and bruises, but you can't deny that level of talent that’s there. … I expect him to be a heck of a player in this league. It’s just a matter of time.”

A process, as it were.

“He’s set himself up for this,” Conley said. “He’s built for this. He’s trained for this. And I’m sure he’s just going to be going through it the first couple games of preseason. After that, it’s sit down, look at the film and learn from it, get better and be the guy that I know he believes he is.”

Conley was the fourth overall pick in 2007, so he knows something about the pressure high draft picks face. (Not to mention those faced by well-compensated veterans. He signed a five-year, $153 million contract in 2016, which at that point was the richest in league history.)

“It’s a lot of pressure (to be taken early), because you’ve got a lot of guys who know who you are, even though you haven’t played a game yet,” Conley said. “He’s definitely going to get everybody’s best shot. He’s got to know that. You’ve got to be prepared for it.”

But Conley also sees Fultz as a level-headed kid, as a guy who will weather the storm. 

“He’s got all the tools,” he said. “Obviously one preseason game, you can’t really judge anything. But his game, I think, is just going to continue to get better. Out there tonight, it looked like he’s still trying to find his way — find his way through the offense.”

Fultz believes he and Simmons can thrive together, that they have already made strides. He further believes that on nights when his shot isn’t falling, he must seek out other ways to contribute.

And finally, he believes he is ready for the challenges ahead — like the one coming up Friday, when the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics come to town.

“I’m actually very, very excited just to test myself against somebody I grew up watching just last year in the Finals,” Fultz said. “Getting the chance to go against one of the best point guards in the NBA right now, I think, will be a good challenge for myself.”

No, that one won’t count, either. Soon enough, though.

Saquon Barkley, No. 4 Penn State rout Indiana as season-defining stretch lies ahead

Saquon Barkley, No. 4 Penn State rout Indiana as season-defining stretch lies ahead

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — His team is 5-0, but James Franklin was talking clean-ups Saturday.

A clean-up of a running game that struggles at times despite the presence of the nation’s most dynamic back. A clean-up of the suddenly unreliable field-goal unit.

This matters now, because October is here and No. 4 Penn State — despite Saturday’s 45-14 victory over Indiana, despite its best start since 2008 — is about to step up in class.

There is a potentially tricky trip to Northwestern next Saturday, and two weeks after that the Nittany Lions begin a three-game stretch that will define their season — Michigan at home, Ohio State and Michigan State on the road.

By then, it will be too late for clean-ups. By then, things will have to be neat and clean.

“There are areas we have to get better,” Franklin said. “For where we want to go and what we want to do, we have to get better.”

To date Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley have most often tidied things up — McSorley, notably, with his last-second touchdown pass at Iowa last week, Barkley with his continual exploits.

After providing a school-record 358 all-purpose yards against the Hawkeyes, he returned Saturday’s opening kickoff 98 yards, and by quarter’s end, the Lions were up 28-0.

The day unraveled a bit after that. PSU managed all of 22 yards while allowing two Hoosiers touchdowns in the second quarter. Tyler Davis, 30 for 32 on field goals before this season but 5 for 11 this fall, missed from 21 yards, connected from 45 and had a 42-yarder blocked.

And as for the running game, don’t ask. With five sacks factored in, the Lions totaled 39 yards on the ground, on 37 attempts. Barkley, despite 205 all-purpose yards (some 48 fewer than his FBS-leading average entering the game), ran for 56 on 20 tries.

Part of that was IU’s hyper-aggressive scheme, one the Hoosiers had also used to good effect while limiting Barkley to 58 yards on 33 carries in 2016. But the bigger factor appeared to be a leaky offensive line.

“There were hiccups here and there today,” said left tackle Ryan Bates, an Archbishop Wood graduate. “We ran some runs (against) different blitzes and different fronts that didn’t work out great. There’s always room for improvement, and we can get better, obviously.”

The Lions started their fourth different line combination of the season, with redshirt freshman Will Fries getting his first start at right tackle after playing the bulk of last week’s game at that position. Chasz Wright, the starter the first three weeks, also saw action, after missing the Iowa game with an undisclosed injury. But Andrew Nelson, who opened against the Hawkeyes, did not dress; he has battled knee problems throughout his career.

The rest of the group — Bates, left guard Steven Gonzalez, center Connor McGovern and right guard Brendan Mahon — is well-seasoned, and figures to get better. It will have to, given the front sevens Michigan and Ohio State will present.

As for Saturday, Bates said he and his linemates were “satisfied,” if only because they won. At the same time, he added, “There’s definitely kind of a bad taste in our mouths because we know what we can do, and how we can do it, and we’re better than how we played today.”

Absent a running game, PSU found other avenues to success. The defense and special teams excelled. Trace McSorley threw for 315 yards. DaeSean Hamilton caught nine balls for 122 and three touchdowns, becoming the school’s all-time leading receiver in the process.

And Barkley provided his own special flair, as when he made a one-handed grab of a first-quarter swing pass and turned it into a gain of 36. He also threw a 16-yard TD pass to Hamilton, albeit with 4:13 left and PSU up 24 — a curious strategic decision, to say the least.

“He’s got so many tools in his toolbox,” Franklin said, “and every week for us, it’s how do we take advantage of them, to give our defense and our opponents issues.”

It also figures to give Heisman voters a viable option down the road.

“I say it so many times: I don’t care about the Heisman award,” Barkley said, before amending that slightly. “Obviously I care because I’m competitive, and I want to be the best and I would love to try to win it, but that’s not my focus. My focus is on the team. My focus is on the game. My focus is on coming out every week and pushing my team to its standards and continuing to be the best I can be.”

On cleaning things up, in other words. It’s a dirty job, and given what lies ahead, somebody’s got to do it.