Offense powers No. 4 Penn State into Northwestern

Sports Xchange

October 03, 2017 at 10:59 pm.

Sep 30, 2017; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley (9) passes the ball against the Indiana Hoosiers during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium. Photo Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 30, 2017; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley (9) passes the ball against the Indiana Hoosiers during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium. Photo Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — There are perks for a veteran approaching an all-time record at a blue-blooded college football program.

At Penn State, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton made a request in the offseason. He wanted a way to practice his craft right up until game time. So he asked if a JUGS machine — a practice device that fires footballs at varying velocities — could be brought over from the practice facility and placed in the wide hallway outside the stadium locker room.

“We do it every game,” Hamilton said. “We probably catch anywhere from like 50 to 100 balls before we go stretch.”

It helped the fifth-year senior ready himself for the No. 4 Nittany Lions’ fifth consecutive victory last week, when he caught nine passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns against Indiana, becoming the school’s career receptions leader with 181.

Hamilton led the Big Ten with 82 catches as a freshman and his re-emergence is coming at a good time for Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) and a bad one for Northwestern, as the Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) host the Nittany Lions at Ryan Field on Saturday.

Penn State’s passing offense has done much of the heavy lifting over the past three games; the Nittany Lions managed just 39 yards on 37 carries against the Hoosiers. Meanwhile, Hamilton has found his groove as Penn State’s primary slot receiver.

Although there was little running room last week for Saquon Barkley, Penn State’s coaching staff has found plenty of ways to get the most out of the dynamic running back.

He is the team’s leading receiver with 386 yards, with 16 of his 27 catches coming in the last two weeks. Barkley began last week’s game with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and he ended his day by throwing a touchdown pass.

He bolstered his Heisman Trophy candidacy with stunning highlights in the process — like catching an overthrown ball one-handed, well behind the line of scrimmage, and turning it into a 36-yard gain to spark a touchdown drive in the first quarter.

That play — and a bunch of others — have made an impression on Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“You know, Barkley is maybe the best player that I’ve ever seen on tape,” Fitzgerald said.

“I’ve played against some pretty good backs, I’ve coached against some pretty good backs, but he’s just absolutely spectacular. He’s great in the run game, he’s great in protection, catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s a great return man. He does it all.”

Fitzgerald’s biggest worry is surrendering the big play.

Against Wisconsin, Northwestern gave up two notable passes — a 61-yarder that set up a go-ahead score in the third quarter and a 32-yarder that prefaced another touchdown that kept the game out of reach as the Badgers won 33-24.

“We’ve got to be better there without a doubt, and we should’ve been better on all of those,” Fitzgerald said. “Not to discredit Wisconsin, they made the plays, but we should have been better on all of those plays.”

Northwestern has a veteran quarterback in Clayton Thorson, who is averaging 265.2 passing yards per game, completing 64.1 percent of his attempts. Senior running back Justin Jackson, going for his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season, is off to a slow start, with 273 yards on 64 carries.

Northwestern has only 15 scrimmage plays of at least 20 yards. Penn State has 33 such plays in one more game.

But there are areas of improvement. Franklin has expressed concern about the run game, and pass protection has become an area of focus too. Penn State has had to juggle its offensive linemen, as starting right tackle Chasz Wright has been limited by an unspecified injury. Veteran Andrew Nelson was coming off a knee injury and saw some playing time, but the coaching staff has settled on Will Fries as the team’s third tackle.

Quarterback Trace McSorley has been sacked nine times in the past two games as the line has tried to figure things out.

Hamilton knows it’s not a sustainable plan if wants to remember this season for more than his individual honor.

“No, we want the bigger things,” Hamilton said. “Bigger than just my career receptions record. We want the national championship.”