EVANSTON, Ill. — These plays won’t appear in the box score, but consider them closely.
They were the best ones Penn State made Saturday at Ryan Field. Bar none.
Better than the 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Trace McSorley that got Penn State’s offense going, or the 53-yard touchdown run by Saquon Barkley that effectively erased all doubt in a 31-7 trouncing of Northwestern.
They were the ones that best describe why these Nittany Lions (6-0) might be simultaneously scaring their fans on a weekly basis, yet still they make the best case possible that — despite the offense maybe not meeting (never mind exceeding) lofty expectations — the No. 4 team in the nation is better than it was a season ago.
►Second quarter. Penn State led by 10, but Northwestern built a response. Fourth-and-2 on the Nittany Lions 33. Heading into a stiff wind, a field goal didn’t seem realistic. The Wildcats had to go for the first down.
They run an option. Quarterback Clayton Throson sprinting right, with running back Justin Jackson trying to hit the edge. Only, he couldn’t shake safety Marcus Allen. Allen covered him like a receiver, and no matter what he tried, Thorson couldn’t get Allen to take a step his way so he could make the pitch. Eventually, freshman defensive end Shane Simmons got there, swallowing up Thorson for a 6-yard loss.
►Third quarter. Penn State up 17. Northwestern has a second-and-10 at its 25. If the Wildcats were going to have a chance to win, they had to start here.
Thorson gave the ball to Jackson, running right. Running right ...
Running right ...
With freshman right tackle Ryan Slater trying his best to prevent it, Penn State defensive end Ryan Buchholz kept extending the edge, stretching it until one of the most accomplished running backs in the Big Ten realized it was never going to appear. He got dropped for a 7-yard loss, swarmed by three Nittany Lions defenders. One each, as it turned out, from every level of the defense: end Simmons, linebacker Jason Cabinda and cornerback Grant Haley.
Defense can carry team to top: Say what you will about the Penn State offensive line, which had more than a few moments of ineptitude again Saturday. Let expectations for the offense that were certainly overblown by what happened in the Rose Bowl distort your perspective of what this team can do if you must, especially considering they’re still averaging more than 36 points per game.
But understand this: Penn State’s defense is good enough to carry this team to the top. Partly because it’s fast enough to be ultra aggressive. Mostly, though, because it’s smart enough to know it can be patient.
“The defense is playing unbelievable,” head coach James Franklin said. “And it’s not just one thing. If you look at us, there’s not one thing where we’re really just overpowering people. It’s not necessarily just our D-line or just our linebackers or just our secondary. It’s a little bit of all of those things. We’re playing really good complementary football ... they all fit in correctly to just play good, complementary, sound defense.
“We’re not a suffocating defense, where we’re taking away every yard on the field. But the most important thing is, we keep people out of the end zone, and we create turnovers.”
Complementary football: Complementary football is a term Bill O’Brien introduced to the lexicon at Penn State when he was the head coach, but Franklin has adopted it the same way so many other coaches have.
Those two plays mentioned above were complementary football at its best. On the first one, a safety taking one avenue of success away from a team so a defensive lineman could take away another. The second, a hard-nosed defensive end holding the line so teammates all around him could assume the glory.
Coaches drill it in practice. They talk about it in meetings. They preach about it in pregame speeches. But it’s rare to see complementary football implemented as consistently, during a game, as Penn State’s defenders have this season.
Offense complements defense: So, how could they buy in so fully? Interestingly, they complement each other because the offense complements them.
“We feed off the offensive energy, and the offense feeds off of our energy,” linebacker Koa Farmer said. “Special teams, as well. We fly down the field. We’re explosive. We’re athletic. We’re fast. It’s all about feeding off of each other’s energy. The crowd is not always going to be in the game, so that’s on us.”
The defense knows the offense can score, so they can be aggressive in aggressive situations, and they can be patient when that’s what they need to be.
The offense knows the defense can shut teams down — the first-team defense forced Northwestern’s offense into six three-and-outs in the second half — so it can take calculated risks.
“For them to continue to pitch shutouts, seven points, whatever it is, that gives our offense confidence,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “Our defense is unbelievable. Everybody understands their role and their assignment. Our defense is extremely reliable.”
Offense doesn't have to be dominant: It has been the most reliable part of this Penn State team all season, and as it officially hit the halfway point of its season after Saturday’s win, Penn State again displayed the reason it still sits in the catbird’s seat when it comes to the postseason.
Last year, the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten largely because they could outscore anybody.
Now, they’re in position for more because their offense doesn’t have to be quite that dominant anymore.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.