UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State football is out to its first 5-0 start to the season since 2008 following Saturday's 45-14 win against Indiana. With wins in each of the first two Big Ten outings, the Nittany Lions are once again looking toward the road, prepping to visit Northwestern for the first time since 2015.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald addressed members of the media this afternoon to talk Saturday's outing, which kicks off at noon in Ryan Field.
In his opening statement, Fitzgerald named Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley and wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton as three of the most dynamic Nittany Lions.
"Barkley is maybe the best player I've ever seen on tape," Fitzgerald said. "I've played against some pretty good backs, I've coached against some pretty good backs and he's just absolutely spectacular. He's great in the run game, he's great in protection, he's great catching the ball out of the backfield, he's a great return man and he does it all, he's an outstanding football player."
Both Barkley and Hamilton earned Big Ten weekly honors following some eye-popping performances in the win against the Hoosiers.
Barkley sent the crowd into a complete frenzy from the start, ripping off a 98-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff. As the first player in the last 20 years with 50 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards, a passing touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown in a game, Barkley put every emphasis on just how dynamic he can be.
Saquon fatigue? Don't follow me, because I can't get enough of his highlights. pic.twitter.com/9DPuXULY6j-- Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) October 1, 2017
Fitzgerald was also impressed with McSorley, who enters the week atop the Big Ten standings and 30th in FBS averaging 270.4 yard per game, with a .656 completion percentage good for third in the conference.
"I think Trace is a great player," Fitzgerald said. "The opportunity to make plays with his legs, he is really impressive, he's a definite threat in the run game to compliment Saquon."
One of McSorley's top targets Saturday of course was Hamilton, who pulled in nine catches for 122 receiving yards and three touchdowns to ascend to the top of the Penn State all-time list for career receptions.
"For Hamilton to be the all-time leader in receptions, I mean I played against Bobby Engram and I don't think we covered him once so to see that type of success and his career is unbelievable," Fitzgerald said.
Special Teams Surging
Sparked by Barkley's big run, Penn State had two special teams scores against IU, with Irvin Charles popping the ball loose for the forced fumble before Nick Scott scooped for the 13-yard touchdown. Charles was solid on special teams for the Nittany Lions, something Scott attributes to his speed.
"He plays extremely fast and extremely hard. He's a guy who has a little grit to him, a little attitude and that fits perfectly on special teams because you have to have a savage mentality to play out there when everything is flying around at full speed," Scott said.
As Scott also noted though, part of the credit goes to punter Blake Gillikin for his placement in punts, which has been spot on through five games this year. Matching a career-high mark, Gillikin sent four punts inside the 20-yard line against Indiana including two inside the 10-yard line, marking the 15th time he's done so in his career.
Also interesting to note, for the first time this week, Gillikin and his brother Tyler will meet on the field on opposite teams. Tyler, Blake's twin brother, is a long snapper for the Wildcats, who hasn't played alongside his brother since helping the Westminster Schools to the Georgia AAA State Championship in 2015.
Fitzgerald: The most experienced,
competitive group we've seen
On the defensive side of the ball, Fitzgerald named linebacker Jason Cabinda as well as safety Marcus Allen. Outside of Cabinda, Fitzgerald noted that the Nittany Lion secondary is probably the most experienced and most competitive group Northwestern has seen.
"They challenge everything, they're physical, they've got a great package with their zone pressure stuff," Fitzgerald said.
Penn State's secondary has also been especially effective in creating turnovers this year, with the Nittany Lions gaining 14 turnovers on the year, which is double the number from last year through five games.
The Nittany Lions created four turnovers against the Hoosiers, with three coming on IU fumbles. Penn State has forced eight fumbles on the year, led by two from Marcus Allen. Allen forced a key third quarter fumble that Parker Cothren recovered to set up a Nittany Lion touchdown drive.
Penn State's Christian Campbell also forced a fumble in the fourth quarter, which Cabinda grabbed for a four-yard return that eventually led to a McSorley touchdown to give the Nittany Lions a 14-0 lead with 11:41 left in the first quarter. Campbell also finished with one pass breakup, marking his sixth consecutive game breaking up at least one pass.