Saquon Barkley

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

ap-psu-whiteout-game-fireworks.jpg
AP Images

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

This team is back. That team is back. The practice of proclaiming that a struggling traditional college football power has returned to elite status after a big win is fraught with false steps.

The truth is that a return to glory can rarely be narrowed down to a single game. But if there ever was a "they're back" moment in college football that turned out to be real, it was on Oct. 22, 2016, in State College, Pennsylvania.

That night, unranked Penn State — a month removed from getting demolished at Michigan and three weeks after an overtime escape against Minnesota that had Nittany Lions fans booing the home team — beat No. 2 Ohio State in a Beaver Stadium whiteout. For the first time under coach James Franklin, Happy Valley was euphoric about Penn State football.

The Nittany Lions have been one of the best teams in the country since.

One year after that victory, the Nittany Lions have another whiteout scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. The difference is that it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State (6-0) beats No. 19 Michigan (5-1) on Saturday night.

The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, but a lethargic offense (86th in the nation). Penn State looks like a College Football Playoff team right now with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley, a top-25 offense (6.49 yards per play) and a top-five defense (4.01 ypp).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Penn State "a well-built team."

"They're really good everywhere," he said.

It's easy to point to last year's Ohio State game as a turning point for Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era, but the humbling loss to Michigan was also notable. The Nittany Lions were banged up on defense and still working out the kinks of a new offense, but at that moment they looked light years from being able to consistently compete with the best in the country. They have not lost a regular-season game since.

All this talk of turning points does not resonate with Franklin, who just sees a long steady grind that continues to this day.

"Like I say with a lot of things, there's 25 slices in this pie," Franklin said. "The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor. I don't make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be."

Things to know about 21st meeting between Penn State and Michigan, but the first since 2002 in which both teams are ranked:

Brown delivers
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and Franklin worked together at Maryland under coach Ralph Friedgen in 2009 and '10.

"I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator," said Franklin, who was offensive coordinator. "What I mean by that is, most defensive coordinators are going to try to take something away, but when they take something away, they're giving you something.

"Don doesn't believe in that. Don is going to overload the box. A lot of guys are going to be on the line of scrimmage in blitz demeanor. The defensive backs are going to be pressed pretty much across the board. They're going to try to take your run game away. They're going to take all the easy throws away."

Heisman watch
Barkley's Heisman campaign slowed a bit the last couple weeks as he was held to a 121 yards rushing and 60 receiving. Still, he is without question the focus of Michigan's defense.

"He runs with great balance," Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said told reporters this week. "He can make those cuts. He can hit those small holes."

Penn State's offensive line has had issues keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving Barkley a chance to get rolling. The Nittany Lions rank 122nd in the nation in tackles for loss allowed at 8.33 per game.

"We just have to be more physical up front and sustain our blocks," center Connor McGovern said.

Sluggish Wolverines
Michigan's team passer efficiency rating is 114.41, better than only Illinois and Rutgers in the Big Ten. John O'Korn (one touchdown pass, four interceptions) is expected to start again at quarterback.

Gameday
For the first time since 2009, ESPN's "College GameDay" pregame show will broadcast from State College. Beaver Stadium holds almost 107,000 people and when almost all of them are wearing white it can be one of the most hypnotic sights in college football. Penn State only holds whiteouts for big games. The Nittany Lions are 6-7 in those games.

Saquon Barkley far from No. 3 Penn State's only weapon in win over Northwestern

usa-trace-mcsorley.jpg
USA Today Images

Saquon Barkley far from No. 3 Penn State's only weapon in win over Northwestern

BOX SCORE

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.

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

usa-saquon-barkley-northwestern.jpg
USA Today Images

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.