EVANSTON, Ill. — A second after the snap of the ball, Shaka Toney already had the edge.
Penn State’s redshirt freshman defensive end got his hand up into the collar of Northwestern left tackle Blake Hance, who had two inches and 70 pounds on him.
But Toney sped right around him en route to Clayton Thorson, slamming the quarterback from behind to jar the ball loose before his arm could come forward. Fumble. Penn State’s ball.
“That’s really go-time,” Toney said of the moment. “Break the ball out. Go for the strip. Make sure the quarterback feels you. Make sure he knows you’re gonna be coming the rest of the game, so that he’s always gonna be looking over his shoulder.”
Thorson and the Wildcats offense heard those footsteps all day, made toothless by an aggressive Nittany Lions defense, which fueled a 31-7 win Saturday at Ryan Field.
No. 4 Penn State forced three turnovers, came up with four sacks — two by Toney — and the first-team defense held Northwestern to just 185 total yards before the backups got involved. The Wildcats ended the Lions’ bid for a third shutout in six games with a late touchdown.
The Lions head into their bye week at 6-0 (3-0 Big Ten) with the toughest part of their schedule awaiting them on the other side — home against Michigan and then road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State.
With Northwestern flooding the Lions’ backfield and stuffing Saquon Barkley for much of the game, it was a chance for the defense to bring home a convincing victory. Ranked third in the nation in both scoring defense (9.4 ppg allowed) and takeaways (14) coming into the game, Brent Pry’s unit managed to improve on both.
Even when the Wildcats threatened early, driving into Penn State territory on their first two drives, the defense came up with takeaways to end both threats — an Amani Oruwariye interception and Toney’s strip-sack, which saw Ryan Buchholz come up with the recovery.
Senior safety Marcus Allen also expertly defended a fourth-and-3 option call in Lions territory, taking away the pitch and allowing another young defensive lineman, Shane Simmons, to run down Thorson to end the drive.
Christian Campbell added an interception to close out the first half.
Asked if there were any bright spots for his offense, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald gave a slight smile before deadpanning, “That’s an awesome question.
“Obviously we’ve gotta credit Penn State. They played really well. They played well and got after us. So we’ll credit them.”
From there, the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) managed just 21 yards of offense in the third quarter and were at minus-2 in the fourth until backups entered on both sides. Northwestern went three-and-out on its first three drives of the second half and four-and-out on the next one.
It was all a welcome sight for the Lions, who finished the first half with minus-2 rushing yards and just a 10-0 lead.
“I think we’re playing at a high level — winning football — in all three phases,” said Lions coach James Franklin, who beat Fitzgerald for the first time in four tries at Penn State and Vanderbilt. “When you’re able to do that, there may be a week where one of the units isn’t playing as well as they should, and you still have a chance to overcome it. I don’t think there’s any doubt … it creates a little bit of wiggle room for you.”
More than enough for the offense to come to life after halftime, turning a tenuous lead into an easy 24-point victory. Barkley ran for two touchdowns, including a 53-yarder that put the game away in the third quarter.
In the meantime, quarterback Trace McSorley (25-34, 245 yards, two total TDs) took advantage of the extra attention being paid to Barkley to complete a school-record 15 straight passes, which included a touchdown to his backup, Tommy Stevens.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever thrown 15 straight completions, even in my backyard,” joked Franklin, a former college quarterback.”
On defense, Franklin had talked up the development of Toney at the start of preseason camp when he urged his coaches to not get hung up on Toney’s 230-pound frame and utilize him as a situational player off the edge on obvious passing downs.
After the game, Toney exited the locker room with the arm of fellow Philadelphia defensive end Shareef Miller draped around him, two big parts of a pass rush that is starting to break the rhythm of opposing offenses.
“Not at all,” Toney said. “We knew we were one of the best defenses in the country. Our aim is to come out and prove it every single game.”
No. 4 Penn State 31, Northwestern 7
Penn State`3`7`14`7 — 31
Northwestern`0`0`0`7 — 7
PSU — Tyler Davis 21 field goal, 0:13
PSU — Tommy Stevens 10 pass from Trace McSorley (Davis kick), 12:04
PSU — Saquon Barkley 1 run (Davis kick), 9:33
PSU — Barkley 53 run (Davis kick), 2:13
PSU — McSorley 5 run (Davis kick), 8:52
NU — Matt Alviti 1 run (Charlie Kuhbander kick), 1:46
Time of Possession`34:04`25:56
RUSHING — PSU, Saquon Barkley 16-75, Tommy Stevens 3-17, Mark Allen 2-4, Andre Robinson 1-0, Trace McSorley 16-(minus 1). NU, Justin Jackson 16-66, Matt Alviti 3-20, Jeremy Larkin 3-5, Jesse Brown 1-4, Riley Lees 1-0, Clayton Thorson 6-(minus 28).
PASSING — PSU, McSorley 25-34-0-245, Stevens 4-7-0-41. NU, Alviti 4-7-0-56, Thorson 19-36-2-142.
RECEIVING — PSU, DeAndre Thompkins 6-57, Juwan Johnson 6-43, Saeed Blacknall 4-74, Brandon Polk 3-40, DaeSean Hamilton 2-35, Miles Sanders 2-11, Mike Gesicki 2-9, Barkley 2-9, Stevens 2-8. NU, Jackson 6-23, Macan Wilson 4-39, Flynn Nagel 3-26, Garrett Dickerson 3-17, Bennett Skowronek 2-34, Lees 2-22, Jace James 1-25, Cameron Green 1-9, Kyric McGowan 1-3.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — Penn St., T.Davis 35.