The Nittany Lions seek a 5-0 start heading into the bye week, while Northwestern has an opportunity to build on its momentum following an upset victory over Minnesota.
No. 6 Penn State (4-0, 2-0) vs. Northwestern (2-2, 1-1)
Kickoff: Noon, Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
TV: BTN, Noon - Mark Followill (play-by-play), Jake Butt (analyst), Brooke Fletcher (sideline)
Weather: A warm and sunny day with a high of 76 with very little chance of rain.
PENN STATE RECORD: 82-36, 10th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 106-51, 13th Year
VS. NORTHWESTERN: 2-3
David Braun (Interim):
NORTHWESTERN RECORD: 2-2, 1st Year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PENN STATE: 0-0
Penn State leads the all-time series with Northwestern 15-5, and have won eight of the last 10 games against the Wildcats...Penn State has won nine consecutive games by at least 14 points, the longest streak in the nation...Penn State also has the longest streak in the nation by scoring points in 28 consecutive quarters...additionally, they also have the nation’s longest streak of scoring 30 or more points in 11 consecutive games...Penn State enters the game first in the nation in total defense, pass defense, first downs allowed, turnover margin and time of possession...Penn State is 14-1 in games played on September 30, including victories over the likes of Gettysburg, California State, Geneva and Muhlenberg...the last game played on Sept. 30 was a 45-14 victory over Indiana in 2017.
NORTHWESTERN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Northwestern’s recent woes on offense are continuing into 2022, but credit to the Wildcats, they have seen some recent improvements and are showing signs of life. The rushing offense is near the bottom of the nation with under 100 yards per game, but the passing game has shown progress under quarterback Ben Bryant, averaging 240 yards through the air. Bryant is a Cincinnati transfer who is coming off a successful season with just under 3,000 yards passing and 21 touchdowns to seven interceptions before missing the last couple games of the season with an injury.
Bryant’s numbers have taken a slight step back in the Wildcats offense, but he’s still completing 60 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and three picks. Bryant has good mobility in the pocket, but is not much of a threat in the running game. He’s coming off one of the best games of the year, making several clutch throws to help the Wildcats storm back from a 31-10 fourth quarter deficit against Minnesota to ultimately win in overtime, 37-34. Bryce tossed for 396 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions against what has been a stingy Gophers defense.
Northwestern relies exclusively on sunning back Cam Porter in the ground game. Porter leads the team with 201 rushing yards and a 4.1 yard per carry average. The Wildcats second, third, and fourth leading rushers are either quarterbacks or receivers. Porter is also active in the passing game, with 10 catches for 49 yards on the season.
Bryant does a good job spreading the ball out, but his most dangerous weapon is Bryce Kirtz, who leads the team with 17 catches for 274 yards and three scores. Kirtz played a major role in the Wildcats upset on Saturday, taking over in the fourth quarter to help fuel the unlikely comeback. Senior receiver Cam Johnson is also a frequent target, as is possession receiver A.J. Henning.
Northwestern has allowed 10 sacks this season, a number that will likely be going up against the Penn State defense. You can expect more of the same from the Nittany Lions defense, which is coming off a historic performance against Iowa — attack the line of scrimmage to limit the run game, and send pressure from throughout the field to keep Bryce off balance. This could be the biggest test so far for the secondary, which ranks first in the nation by allowing just 138 passing yards per game.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE
Penn State’s offense is off to a great start with an average 40.5 points a game that places them 15th in the nation. The one thing that has been missing thus far is regular explosive plays, although that may not be cause for concern at this point. This is mostly by design, as defenses have been working to limit big plays with deep safeties while keeping an extra man or two in the box in the hopes of forcing an inexperienced quarterback to carry the load and eventually make mistakes. Unfortunately for them, it hasn’t worked out that way as Drew Allar has proved more than capable of finding the open man and zipping the ball right into his hands with the precision and velocity of an NFL quarterback. Furthermore, Allar has yet to throw an interception or lose a fumble in his first four starts, or for that matter, the 10 appearances he made in 2022 as a true freshman backup.
Northwestern will need to stack the box to keep running backs Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton at bay, as the Wildcats have had problems stuffing the run thus far. They are currently allowing nearly 200 yards per game on the ground, ranking 112 in the nation. Their passing defense has been far better, although that may be a byproduct of teams not having to pass the ball as much if their ground game is working against the Wildcats.
Linebacker Bryce Gallagher leads the team in tackles by a wide margin with 44, and is coming off a 100-tackle season in 2022. Senior Xander Mueller is next in line with 29 tackles, and is also the team leader with 4 TFLs, as well as 1.5 sacks and an interception. Northwestern’s pass rush has not been terribly fearsome, with a team total of six sacks and six QB hurries.
Jack Olson is in his first year as starting kicker for the Wildcats, and has connected on all 12 extra point attempts and is 2-for-2 on field goals, a 37 and 40-yarder. Hunter “The Punter” Renner is averaging 38 yards per punt with a long of 54 yards. Only five of his 22 attempts have landed inside the 20-yard line.
Receiver A.J. Henning has proved an effective kick returner, but is not likely to get a chance thanks to Penn State kickoff specialist Gabe Nwosu routinely putting the ball out of the end zone.
Penn State 38, Northwestern 13
Based on the way these teams match-up, I’m expecting a similar result to Penn State’s victory over Iowa, with the exception that Wildcats offense will have slightly more juice and a few tricks up their sleeve (which you could say about any offense compared the the Hawkeyes). Penn State’s defense should have little problem shutting down the run, getting pressure on Bryant, and being the 11 aggressive heat-seeking missiles who cause chaos.
Even if Northwestern follows the pattern of focusing on limiting big plays, Allar will be able to dink and dunk his way down the field, while the Allen and Singleton get things moving on the ground to keep the defense honest. This game will follow the similar pattern we’ve seen from Penn State’s three FBS contests thus far this season, helping the starters get off the field for the fourth quarter as the team heads into the bye week with a 5-0 record.