Northwestern faces Penn State Football on Saturday at a surprising 2-2 overall, after a thrilling comeback win in overtime against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Down 31-10 late in the third quarter, Northwestern looked dead in the water before scoring 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. In overtime, the Wildcats were able to hold Minnesota to a field goal before winning the game with a 25-yard touchdown pass.
After a turbulent offseason that saw Northwestern fire Pat Fitzgerald in July, the Wildcats have exceeded — albeit low — expectations with the conference win over Minnesota.
However, Penn State is a much different test for the Wildcats, with a stout defense that can create problems for Ben Bryant and the Wildcats offense that helped them get back into the game Saturday night.
Here are 3 key matchups for Penn State Football against Northwestern Saturday:
Penn State team vs. 11 am local kick and quiet atmosphere
Penn State Football head coach James Franklin is taking the lack of energy at Northwestern seriously this week, as Franklin refused to turn up the music at practice to simulate the lack of energy the Nittany Lions will feel for the 11 am local kick Saturday.
Despite the thrilling comeback win over Minnesota a week ago, Northwestern will likely not get a very energetic crowd at 11 am local time in a game where Northwestern is a 26.5-point underdog.
With a quiet, low energy crowd expected, Penn State must bring its own energy and avoid sleepwalking out of the White Out and avoid letting Northwestern stay in the game.
If Penn State can get out to a lead early, Northwestern will be forced to throw the ball and Penn State can rely on its elite defense to capitalize on what could be a very desperate Northwestern offense.
Penn State practiced without music at the end of practice today to get ready for the Northwestern trip.
Franklin said they have to be honest about the atmosphere. He asked if they’re an internally or externally motivated team.
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) September 27, 2023
Ben Bryant vs. Penn State Secondary
In Northwestern’s comeback win over Minnesota Saturday, Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant threw for 396 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.
Three of those four touchdowns came in the fourth quarter to allow Northwestern to erase the 21-point deficit that the Wildcats had dug. Saturday was the first game where Bryant threw for over 170 yards or more than one touchdown on the season.
However, if Saturday’s performance was not a fluke, Penn State’s secondary will have to step up to keep Northwestern’s offense at bay. Northwestern’s rushing game has been extremely inconsistent this season, rushing for only 12 yards on 22 attempts against Rutgers and less than 100 yards on 29 carries against Minnesota.
If Northwestern is going to compete with Penn State Football Saturday, Bryant will need to air the ball out effectively again.
Against a stout Penn State secondary, that will be a tall task. Penn State’s corners will have plenty of opportunities to increase Penn State’s national lead in takeaways if Penn State can get a lead and force Northwestern to air out the ball to stay in the game.
Penn State Defensive Line vs. Northwestern Offensive Line
Bryant has been sacked 11 times this season, including five sacks against Rutgers.
In the Rutgers matchup, Bryant was sacked five times and threw two interceptions, leading to a 14.9 QBR.
Penn State’s pass rush has not been getting as many sacks this season as expected with a potential first round pick in Chop Robinson and at least two other elite defensive ends, but Penn State’s pass rush has contributed to Penn State’s nation leading 11 turnovers.
If Penn State’s defensive line can get pressure, it could lead to plenty of sacks and turnovers for the Wildcats, limiting any chance at sustained drives with negative plays. With an average of almost three sacks given up per game, and five sacks given up against Rutgers, Penn State’s pass rush should have plenty of opportunities against the Northwestern offensive line.
Coming out of the White Out’s electric atmosphere and going into an 11 am local kick in Evanston will be a test for Penn State’s internal motivation.
On paper, Penn State is a much more talented team, and should cruise to an easy victory as long as Penn State does not come out sleepwalking with low energy. If Penn State can come out with energy and dominate the line of scrimmage, it will be tough for Ben Bryant to get anything going on offense and could lead to a long game for the Wildcats.