Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lions keep focus on Northwestern

Penn State coach James Franklin chose not to assess his team through four games.

Instead, Franklin stressed the same tunnel-vision approach he has every week.

“We were 1-0 last week, which is awesome,” Franklin said. “We’re focusing on being 1-0 this week against Northwestern. And we’re excited about that opportunity to get better and continue to grow and continue to build our chemistry and work on our weaknesses and build on our strengths.”

The Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0) take on Northwestern (1-2) in Big Ten play Saturday at noon at Beaver Stadium. The glaring weakness early in the season was the offensive line and the running game, which finally clicked against a hapless Massachusetts team last week. The strength has been the defense, which has dominated in the last three games.

Penn State is off to its best start since 2008, when the Nittany Lions won their first nine games.

To continue that start, Penn State is looking to find consistency from its rushing attack.

Penn State survived in close wins over Central Florida and Rutgers despite a nonexistent ground game. The Nittany Lions then piled up 228 rushing yards — more than the first three games combined — to go with five rushing touchdowns in a 48-7 win over Massachusetts last Saturday.

After the game, running back Bill Belton said any team can enjoy success once. The Nittany Lions have to show they can do it again.

Backfield mate Akeel Lynch agreed.

“Now we’ve got to change our new best,” Lynch said. “So each week, each day in practice, we’re striving to beat our previous best, so it’s about bringing the running game along, not just one game, and we’re going to continue to do that throughout the whole season.”

The offensive line was part of the problem in the running game, opening few holes for the backs to make anything happen.

Though the improved effort against UMass displayed progress, right tackle Andrew Nelson kept the win in perspective.

“We were telling ourselves that UMass’ D-line was as good as any we were going to face,” Nelson said. “And I think going in with that mindset, it really helped us to dominate.

“But we know that there’s going to be D-lines out there that are better than those guys.”

That starts Saturday against Northwestern.

The Wildcats’ defensive line is led by end Ifeadi Odenigbo.

Odenigbo forced three fumbles, recovered a fumble and recorded two sacks in Northwestern’s 24-7 win over Western Illinois last week.

Odenigbo finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks last season. Northwestern ranks eighth in scoring defense and 10th in total defense in the Big Ten.

The Penn State defense has been far more impressive.

The Nittany Lions are allowing just 11 points per game, the fewest in the conference and the sixth-fewest in the nation. The unit, led by a stout defensive line and its linebackers, has limited opponents to the fewest rushing yards per game (49.5) in the country, too.

Franklin praised defensive tackle Austin Johnson this week, saying he may not get the stats, but his presence allows his teammates to make plays. Alongside Johnson, Anthony Zettel has emerged as a force and leads the Big Ten with seven tackles for loss.

“To me, they all should take a lot of credit in what’s been going on with our defense overall and any individual attention people have been getting,” Franklin said. “It’s about the greater good, it’s about the greater cause.”

Franklin said the linebacking corps has exceeded his expectations thus far.

The coach said the staff was always confident in Mike Hull, who leads the team with 37 tackles, but outside linebackers Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell came into the season unproven.

“To be successful, what we talk to our players all the time about is about being consistent,” Franklin said. “Anybody can make a play. Time and time, can you do it over and over and over again, can you do your job consistently?”

Franklin feels the linebackers have done that. Wartman is second on the team with 20 tackles, and Bell has nine tackles and a sack.

Penn State will see if the running game can find that consistency after a breakout performance last week.

And Franklin will continue to take the same approach preparing his team.

When asked about Penn State’s upcoming bye week, Franklin answered by rattling off “Northwestern” five times.

His focus is solely on the Wildcats.

“I have no idea what exists after Saturday’s game,” Franklin said. “It’s kind of like when we thought the earth was flat and it just falls off after that. I have no idea what happens.”