Defense Girds For Basanez and Co.

Wildcat quarterback already ranks among the Big Ten's all-time leaders in several departments, and he has not thrown an interception in 106 passing attempts this season. The Nittany Lions hope to counter with plenty of speed in the secondary and at linebacker.

Penn State safety Chris Harrell is from Euclid, Ohio, a hotbed of Ohio State support. The town used to be a hotbed of Penn State animosity as well, but not so much anymore.

“Sometimes when I go back home, people don’t see us as much of a threat,” Harrell said. “I always take that as an insult. I come back [to school] and I make sure I tell my teammates. Some teams are definitely overlooking us.”

The Nittany Lions could make Harrell’s home life easier by winning Saturday at Northwestern. Penn State has lost its past five conference openers, the most recent being a 16-3 pratfall last year at Wisconsin in which its top two quarterbacks were both knocked out of the game in the first quarter.

Penn State is wary of the Wildcats, as well it should be. The Lions have lost their past two games to Northwestern, managing a combined total of 14 points in those defeats.

If this year’s nonconference results are any indication, points should be easier to come by Saturday. Northwestern (2-1) surrendered an astonishing 773 yards last week in a 52-21loss at Arizona State and gave up 37 points in a victory against Northern Illinois Sept. 10.

The bigger problem will be shutting down the Wildcats’ potent offense. Senior quarterback Brett Basanez is a four-year starter who orchestrates the team’s complex spread with aplomb. He ranks ninth in Big Ten history with 7,755 passing yards and is in the top 10 in pass attempts (1,193) and completions (671). Against Arizona State, he went 24 of 37 for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

Basanez knows how to use all his receivers. His top target so far has been junior Shaun Herbert, an expert route runner with 21 receptions for 212 yards and four touchdowns. But Basanez is also able to find his second and third options if necessary, which means nickel back Paul Cronin will probably have a busy afternoon.

“They’re going to try to spread the field and throw it all over the place,” Harrell said. “It’s [Basanez’s] fourth year playing, and he’s been a starter since he’s been there. We’re really going to have to try to make him make mistakes. He hasn’t thrown an interception all year, so we’re really going to have to work at disguising what defense we’re in.”

Northwestern will test Penn State’s linebackers in addition to its defensive backs. They will be required to drop into coverage at times, but Northwestern also likes to run out of its spread offense, taking advantage of gaps at the line of scrimmage. Tyrell Sutton, a 5-foot-9 freshman from Akron, Ohio, already has 416 yards and six touchdowns. In addition, Basanez isn’t afraid to run on occasion, giving Penn State something else to worry about.

“Northwestern is a very, very clever football team,” Joe Paterno said. “Randy Walker has done a great job with the quarterback keeping the ball, running the option, that kind of thing. They will be tough offensively. … We’ll have our hands full, no question about that.”

Are the Lions prepared? Harrell thinks so.

“We have a lot of fast linebackers. That’s one thing we’ve really been blessed with here,” he said. “We haven’t had to bring in a [dime] defensive back and sacrifice being able to protect against the run. We have so much speed with Tim Shaw and some of the other linebackers. We can cover a lot of things without bringing in another defensive back.” 

Harrell said he believes the Northwestern game could have an impact on the rest of the season. The Lions have made some bad first impressions in recent years, and their foibles have magnified the significance of this year’s conference opener. Will they win? Lose? For now, the only certainty is that a lot of people will be paying close attention.  

“How we do in the first game will really set a tone for how the rest of the teams in the Big Ten view us and whether we’re going to be a threat,” Harrell said. “So we’re really looking at this as an important game.”


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