STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State coach James Franklin realizes it’s a luxury to have so many serviceable players at his disposal this early in the season. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is impressed by the numbers.
“They’re playing as many guys as I can ever remember anybody playing,” Fitzgerald said. “As far as depth, it’s probably the deepest team we’ve seen.”
Nearly 60 Nittany Lions have rotated in and out of a lineup that hasn’t been tested since a down-to-the-wire, four-point victory at Purdue in the season-opener. The Wildcats will see them up close when Northwestern (1-3, 1-0 Big Ten) visits No. 11 Penn State (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday.
Penn State is looking to stay unbeaten before a bye and then a mid-October trip to No. 4 Michigan.
While the Nittany Lions weren’t satisfied with their uneven 33-14 win last week over Central Michigan, they didn’t let their miscues cost them. Although they didn’t finish the Chippewas until late, they still posted a second-half shutout.
Franklin knows this week likely will be different.
“Whenever you’re playing a Big Ten opponent, it’ll be a challenge,” Franklin said.
Fitzgerald hopes so. His team is looking to break out of a long skid.
Although Northwestern has lost three one-possession games in a row since opening the season with a three-point win over Nebraska, Fitzgerald has coached up his squad to beat Franklin’s in two of their last three meetings, including at Beaver Stadium eight years ago.
Despite the recent skid, Fitzgerald feels optimistic about his team’s chances in the Big Ten’s West Division. The Wildcats just need to clean up late-game mistakes.
Last week it was a fumble on their final drive. The week before, the Wildcats had three second-half turnovers in a loss to Southern Illinois.
“We had ample opportunities early in all three of those games to seize momentum and we haven’t, and that’s something that we’ve got to continue to stress,” Fitzgerald said. “I like this group of guys. I think they’ve got a confidence about them. I know it’s been maybe taking some body shots here, but if we keep working we’re going to improve. If we improve, we’re gonna win.”
Northwestern’s passing attack is ranked third in the conference. Quarterback Ryan Hilinski has the Wildcats averaging 305 yards per game, and they're getting a lot from running back Evan Hull. Hull leads all FBS players with 170 all-purpose yards per game and is Northwestern's leading receiver with 29 catches for 311 yards and one touchdown. He also powers the team’s pass protection, doubling up with his offensive linemen to block opposing pass rushers.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL
The Nittany Lions are deepest on the back end of their defense. They’re regularly playing 10 defensive backs and lead the country with 41 pass breakups, 26 more than second-place Illinois.
More importantly, they are disrupting passes with precision. Despite their attacking style, the NIttany Lions have been called for just four pass interference penalties and one defensive holding infraction so far.
“That was a struggle from last year, getting called for PIs,” cornerback Joey Porter Jr. said. “We know that we’re faster than most of these guys and we can run with the best. We don’t always gotta put hands on at the deep end of the route.”
CHOICE OF POISON
Penn State running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen have handled equal loads and have looked good doing so.
Singleton leads the team with 42 carries for 376 yards and four touchdowns. Allen’s added 36 carries for 217 yards and three scores. While Singleton starred two weeks ago with 124 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a convincing win at Auburn, Allen went off against Central Michigan, rushing for 111 yards and one score.
Franklin will continue to roll with the hot back on Saturday.
“That’s really happened the last couple of weeks when one of them’s gotten hot for whatever reason,” Franklin said. “And we’ve kind of let it sort itself out for the most part.”
They could get more help as guard Hunter Nourzad could return from an unspecified injury that kept him out last week.
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