Northwestern punter Hunter Niswander put his head down, jogged to the Northwestern bench and lightly slapped hands with a few teammates. For the whole game, it seemed as if that scene was stuck on repeat.
Niswander punted eight times Saturday as, time and time again, Penn State’s defense shut the Wildcats down in a 31-7 win on Saturday. Short series after short series, three-and-out after three-and-out, the soul of Northwestern’s offense was crushed.
If not for a score on Northwestern’s final drive — against Penn State’s second-team unit — the Nittany Lions would’ve had their third shutout of 2017.
But it sure as heck felt like a shutout. Even the Wildcats’ touchdown with less than two minutes in regulation drew sarcastic cheers from the few remaining fans at Ryan Field. Everyone knew what transpired on Saturday afternoon: Penn State’s defense, maybe the most underrated unit in college football, flexed its muscles yet again.
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The Nittany Lions held Northwestern to 265 yards. Niswander had more yards giving the ball back to Penn State (296 on eight punts). Penn State racked up 10 pass breakups, seven tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries, four sacks, two interceptions and a forced and recovered fumble.
“Our defense is incredible,” Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said, perking up when asked about his teammates on the other side of the ball. “We see it every day. We’ve seen it since camp.”
Through six games, the Nittany Lions have surrendered 9.0 points per game. Penn State’s 9.4 average entering Saturday was good for third-best in the country behind only Alabama and Georgia.
But some may forget that the Nittany Lions’ defense was pretty darn good in 2016, too. Penn State allowed 22.5 points per game in the regular season and 17.8 in the final eight games before postseason play.
And of course, when it came to the Big Ten title game, Penn State’s defense held Wisconsin to three points in the second half and made a fourth-down stop to win the conference crown.
“I think we were better on defense last year than people give us credit for,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “You don’t win the Big Ten championship without that.”
Penn State’s defense was stellar down the stretch, but porous in its final test: the Rose Bowl. Sam Darnold and Southern California carved up the Nittany Lions for 52 points and 575 total yards.
With seven seniors coming back, Penn State had the pieces of a quietly effective defense returning for 2017. It was just a matter of putting that Rose Bowl disaster in the rear view mirror and growing from it.
“We just wanted this so bad,” Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller said. “Losing to USC really tested us. In the offseason, we were grinding. It’s showing on the field.
“That USC loss motivated us the whole offseason to get back to where we were at last year and do better things this year.”
Redshirt freshman defensive end Shaka Toney, who had two sacks and a forced fumble on Saturday, said he knew this defense would be special on the second day of fall camp. “Just our energy, how we always play, the communication levels, just everything,” Toney added.
The Nittany Lions’ first-team defense prevented Northwestern from finding paydirt, and the Nittany Lions recorded three more takeaways on Saturday, too — bumping their season totals to nine interceptions and eight fumble recoveries.
What’s arguably most impressive, though, is the way Penn State has done it. Make no mistake about it, Northwestern drove on the Nittany Lions early. The Wildcats were in their opponent’s territory on four occasions in the first half. But all four times, Penn State forced a turnover: three takeaways and a stop on fourth down.
Penn State’s defense has drawn on experience from 2016, learning from the Rose Bowl and bringing back game-changers like Marcus Allen, Jason Cabinda and Grant Haley. But it’s also grown into a more formidable unit, one that — if need be — can guide Penn State to a win.
The Nittany Lions want even more than that, though. Penn State’s defense wants to be the best in college football.
“We want to be the No. 1 defense in the country and that’s our goal,” Toney said. “So we come out every day with a chip on our shoulder until we do it.”
Now halfway through the 2017 season, they’ve certainly looked the part.