Penn State Football: Entrance Exams Done As Nittany Lions Beat Northwestern 31-7
Effectively, the past six weeks have been a series of entrance exams for Penn State. Pass those tests and you get to the good stuff. You get to be a part of the national conversation at the time of year that seasons are decided.
And now that time is here.
Three games that will put Penn State's 6-0 record, lock down defense and potent --if not occasionally sputtering-- offense to the test. If the Nittany Lions are who they say they are, and want to achieve the goals they set out to achieve, the month of October will decide if those dreams can become reality.
Penn State's 31-7 win over Northwestern was in essence every other game the Nittany Lions have played this season. Trace McSorley was effective going 25-of-34 for 245 yards and a touchdown. At one point the junior threw 15 consecutive completions, setting a new school record in the process. He targeted multiple receivers and was sharp when he had to be, and smart when the moments demanded it.
The Nittany Lion defense continued its historic enthusiasm for stopping offenses from moving the ball, the Nittany Lions yet to surrender any points in the first quarter. And as Amani Oruwariye proved with his third interception on the year and second in as many games, this Penn State defense is hardly a passive unit happy with given up yards, let alone points.
As a result Northwestern would convert just five of 19 third downs, Shaka Toney's two sacks highlighting a day that featured seven tackles for a loss. It was nearly shutout football until the second and third team units hit the field late in the game.
But, like always, the Nittany Lions were not without their issues. Saquon Barkley was held in check for most of the game, his 53-yard touchdown run his only real highlight as Northwestern stacked the box. McSorley was sacked four times and Penn State managed just 67-yards on the ground against a team set on stopping the run with an offensive line still finding its footing.
Even so, as the rain rolled into Ryan Field not long after the final whistle blew a simple fact remained. That Penn State is at a base level, more talented and more balanced on every front than all six teams it has played so far. So as the Nittany Lions work through their lingering issues, the remaining positives still end up being more than enough to beat most teams.
Enough to beat Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, though?
That's the 4 million dollar question.
Books have quite literally been written about the events of seven years ago. A field goal that clanged off an upright to give Penn State a 10-7 win over Illinois and Joe Paterno's 409th of his long career. One bye week later and he would never coach another game.
Now in the state of Illinois, Penn State enters a bye week bowl eligible, and facing arguably one of the biggest games in the program's history. Those kinds of lists are scorched with recency bias and hyperbole, but the Nittany Lions will find out the fate of their 2017 season sooner rather than later. With playoff hopes on the line, it's hard to pick many past games of more importance. If the 2005 Ohio State game is ever to be replicated in energy and emotion, it may not find a better moment than two weeks from now.
Of course as James Franklin took the podium on Saturday he had little interest in embracing those realities just yet.
Focusing on the win. Enjoying the victory. Improving internally. Not focusing just yet on the big M on the horizon. A game that in many regards will help define Penn State's rising profile.
His players? The excitement can be seen through the cracks of the "We're just focused on this week." veneer.
"These next couple of weeks are going to be important for us," Trace McSorley said after the game. "But if we can keep our routine as normal as possible and just focus on it one week at a time and then come into the next week ready to go, rejuvenated and excited.....this is what you play here for, this is what you play Big Ten football for. The games that are going to define your season and that's what we've kind of got coming up. Obviously you have to take it one game at a time, but this is what you've got to be excited for."
"We just have to approach it like a mature football team, like we are," Mike Gesicki added with a smile.
But it has got to be hard to wait 14 days for the next one, right?
"Ehhhh....I mean yea," Gesicki relented. "Obviously when you're sitting on your couch next weekend watching the games you want to be out there. But I think the bye comes at a good time for us dead smack in the middle of the season. To get guys as healthy as ready to go for the second half."
There was little doubt that as Penn State fans crowded around the locker room doors and the team made its way to the bus that the season had finally arrived. Six weeks later the Nittany Lions had gotten their grades back and had passed their entrance exams.
Now the real tests begin.