UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State entered the season known as a college football program capable of scoring points in bunches. That sentiment hasn’t faded, as it served up a 45-14 Big Ten victory over Indiana on Saturday, but the Nittany Lions are proving to be a dangerously balanced team.
“We’ve shown we have a couple different ways to win and different ways of being able to score, not just with our offense,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “For us to have all three phases working together like that, it makes us really dangerous.”
McSorley completed 23 of 36 pass attempts for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns, but this latest Penn State offensive performance certainly wasn’t smooth sailing. The Nittany Lions surrendered 5 sacks, tossed an interception and managed only 39 rushing yards.
“We are going to enjoy wins around here, but there are still some things we have to get cleaned up,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “For where we want to go, and what we want to do, we’ve got to get better.”
If someone told you before the season that Saquon Barkley would average 2.8 yards per carry on 20 attempts in a Big Ten game featuring two failed Nittany Lions field-goal attempts, you likely wouldn’t have conjured up a 31-point Penn State victory.
This result is the latest testament to a team that can punish opponents regardless of situation.
“I think we’re a great team, and that’s what great teams have to do — find a way to win,” Barkley said. “That’s something we’ll have to continue to do if we want to become the team we want to be. Any way possible. Some of them are going to be pretty; some of them are going to be ugly. We just have to find a way to win.”
Though he was largely bottled up on the ground, Barkley played a big role Saturday. The Heisman Trophy hopeful opened action with a 98-yard kickoff return.
Saquon Barkley scores on the first touch of the game. Kick return TD. pic.twitter.com/KPXNkJxUU1
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) September 30, 2017
This scintillating sprint brought 107,000 fans to their feet at Beaver Stadium, setting the tone for a consistently raucous atmosphere. It was the first of two first-quarter special-teams touchdowns for Penn State, as Irvin Charles forced a fumble that led to a 13-yard scoop-and-score for Nick Scott.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a better half of special teams in my 23 years of doing this,” Franklin said. “That’s something we’ve worked really hard on and invested in since we’ve been here, and we’re really starting to get some positive returns.”
These scores fueled a hot start for Penn State, as the Nittany Lions jumped out to a 28-0 advantage in the first quarter. The complexion of this contest could have been much different without special teams heroics since Indiana answered with 14 second-quarter points.
“Being able to win the field position battle is one thing, but also creating turnovers and touchdowns on special teams gives the whole team a boost it didn’t necessarily expect,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said.
The defense also did its part, forcing 4 turnovers and blanking Indiana in the second half. Despite some uneasy moments, this game was ultimately never in doubt, and the defense deserves a lot of credit for slamming the door.
“The turnovers were huge,” Franklin said. “We’ve been emphasizing that all offseason. I’m pleased with the progress we’re making there.”
Cabinda led Penn State with 14 tackles and 1 sack. Cornerback Amani Oruwariye swung momentum in the Nittany Lions’ direction for good by picking off a Hoosiers pass attempt during the visitors’ first second-half drive.
Eventually, the Nittany Lions offense regained rhythm. Penn State posted 17 points during the final 21 minutes of game time, including a pair of touchdown tosses to receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who set a record for career receptions.
Hamilton, who now has 181 catches in a Nittany Lions uniform, explained the importance of a well-balanced roster.
“It’s really, really big,” he said. “Our defense has been able to put us in great field position. Our special teams has been able to put our defense in great situations, get safeties, get them backed up. The defensive and special teams touchdowns are incredible. It shows how great of a team we are, how complete of a team we are and how far we’ve come.”
Penn State now has 3 special-teams touchdowns through five weeks, including its first kick-return score since 2011 and first punt-return score since 2008. Meanwhile, the defense has surrendered only 47 points this season and tallied safeties against Iowa and Pittsburgh.
These crucial elements of a complete attack essentially provide built-in safety nets for times when one facet isn’t up to par.
“It raises the level of confidence among everyone on the team,” McSorley said. “If the offense is sputtering or the defense is falling back, there’s two other units that are going to pick the other one up. If we can get all three working together, that’s when our team is really clicking.”
This philosophy also applies to a lauded offensive attack that’s now exceeded 30 points in 11 of 12 games. As we’ve seen in other games this season, Penn State is able to count on its perimeter playmakers when opponents heavily target Barkley’s ground efforts.
“Everybody’s game plan is to stop Saquon Barkley in the run game,” Franklin said. “We have to get better in that area, but I love the fact we have so many different guys that can hurt you.”
Barkley delivered the final touchdown pass Saturday, finding Hamilton for a 16-yard score. He later compared the Nittany Lions offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to a chess master.
“He always has the last piece in his hand,” Barkley said.
That sums up the current state of Nittany Lions football. Penn State has now won 14 of 15 games, dating to Sept. 2016. Still, Franklin’s search for perfection — or at least the closest they can approach it — exudes among his players.
“I don’t think we’ll ever leave a game satisfied,” Barkley said. “We’ll find a way, something, that we can’t be satisfied about. But at the end of the day, the moral of the story is score more points than the other team. Sometimes, it’s going to be 59-0, sometimes it’s going to be 45-13, sometimes you’ve got to gut it out at the last second.”
The post Penn State proves Big Ten championship repeat won’t rely on offensive fireworks appeared first on Land of 10.
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