Penn State fans would’ve been supremely disappointed with anything but a perfect start. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
As many expected, the Nittany Lions are unscathed halfway through the 2017 season — and James Franklin loves it.
“We’re in an ideal situation,” the coach said after Saturday’s 31-7 win over Northwestern. “We’re 6-0 going into the bye week.”
Things are looking dandy for the Nittany Lions: Their defense is playing out of its collective mind, Trace McSorley is looking like a Davey O’Brien Award candidate, and — oh yeah — they still have Saquon Barkley. Penn State may have a couple concerns (see below for more). But the Nittany Lions have to be happy; they’re outscoring their opponents 238-54 through six games.
Plus, Penn State is already bowl-eligible, a thing Nittany Lion fans used to rejoice over the past few years.
But 2017 is different. Penn State and its supporters have higher hopes.
After six weeks, the No. 3 Nittany Lions are in prime position to make dreams reality.
▪ Amani Oruwariye proved yet again why he’s the most underrated player on Penn State’s nationally recognized defense. Heck, he might be the most overlooked defensive player in the Big Ten, a real all-conference candidate that no one is talking about.
The redshirt junior now has three interceptions on the year. He’s even closer now to becoming the first Penn State player since Lydell Sargeant in 2008 to have more than three picks in a season.
Oruwariye almost knotted Sargeant’s mark in the second quarter after nabbing a first-quarter pick, an acrobatic play on which he used his 6-foot-1 frame to box out 6-foot-4 Northwestern wide receiver Bennett Skowronek and yank the ball into his hands.
What’s interesting are the situations Oruwariye is snaring the ball away in: He’s taking advantage of obvious passing downs. The corner’s pick against Akron came on third-and-8, his nab last weekend facing Indiana came on third-and-6 on the Hoosiers’ own 29-yard line, and Oruwariye’s third was on third-and-goal from Penn State’s 28.
Oruwariye is instinctive to begin with, but he knew before the plays snapped that Akron, Indiana and Northwestern were tossing it on third-and-long. He sure did capitalize.
▪ Ryan Buchholz could end up being the best defensive end Sean Spencer and Penn State has seen over this four-year span.
He already is a good one — but the Malvern native can get even better, which is scary for opposing offensive linemen.
A defensive end with interior lineman size, Buchholz utilized that advantage on Saturday.
The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder made only two tackles, but set up a few more stops for loss. On one play in particular, Buchholz drove Northwestern’s right tackle to the boundary, forcing Wildcats running back Justin Jackson into a pack of Nittany Lions. Four Penn State players were in on the tackle for loss; Buchholz wasn’t one of them, but he made it happen.
It’ll be interesting to see how he improves throughout 2017.
▪ For those concerned about Mike Gesicki’s health, the tight end started and was involved in the offense. Two catches for nine yards isn’t something to brag about, but it’s also not worthy of criticism or concern.
Gesicki — who took a hard hit to the lower left back last weekend and appeared to injure his rib area — looked a little slow running his routes, getting in and out of his breaks at Ryan Field.
But to see him at all was a positive for the Nittany Lions.
After the game, Gesicki gave credit to head athletic trainer Tim Bream and the rest of the staff, prepping him for Saturday’s contest.
Ultimately, the Nittany Lions didn’t need his services. But with a top-25 matchup against Michigan on the horizon after the bye week, it was good to see Gesicki out there doing his thing.
▪ Yeah, the field-goal unit is still a problem.
Everything was looking A-OK for most of the afternoon. Tyler Davis connected on a 21-yard field goal, and the senior placekicker connected on all of his extra points.
As the game waned, it appeared the Nittany Lions would escape their dominating win without a special teams blemish.
Alas, that wasn’t the case.
With less than five minutes left in regulation, Davis pushed a 35-yard attempt. It wasn’t pretty. Penn State fans in the first few rows of Ryan Field rolled their eyes and shook their heads.
The Nittany Lions won by 24, and it could’ve been more. But in a game that was no contest, Penn State still has its issues.
The field-goal unit is one of them.
▪ Irvin Charles was flagged for two holding calls on punt returns, and Ayron Monroe had one of his own, negating a DeAndre Thompkins touchdown.
In a commanding win, it didn’t really matter. Thompkins’ score would’ve been nice to have for the Nittany Lions, sure, but Monroe’s mistake wasn’t a crucial one on Saturday.
In two weeks against Michigan? That’s a different story.
▪ Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike was tossed after a targeting penalty — and it was bull.
Yes, Igwebuike deserved a penalty. His slightly delayed hit on Miles Sanders wasn’t deliberate, but it was definitely late.
Still, he barely made contact with Sanders’ helmet. After looking at the replay a few times, zoom-in was necessary to see where Igwebuike’s helmet grazed Sanders.
It was an unfortunate finish to Igwebuike’s day. The future NFL safety was all over the field, tallying a game-high 11 tackles.
Targeting is a necessary part of football. Don’t get me wrong. But Igwebuike missing the first half of next week’s game at Maryland for unintentional contact is weak.
▪ Penn State allowed four sacks on Saturday after giving up five last week against Indiana.
Chasz Wright started at right tackle, and Will Fries rotated in quite a bit.
The Nittany Lions need to figure out that situation on the offensive line. It’ll fly against the likes of Indiana and Northwestern — not against Michigan and Ohio State.