Penn State vs. Northwestern: Final thoughts and a prediction
These will be my first and only thoughts on Northwestern, as well as my final ones: The Wildcats stink, and Penn State should crush them.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team hasn’t won a game in the United States since last October. This is one of the lesser squads the program has fielded in the veteran coach’s 17 seasons in Evanston, Illinois. The Wildcats (1-3, 1-0 B1G) just lost at home to Miami, and we’re talking RedHawks, not Hurricanes. That loss followed home setbacks to Duke and FCS Southern Illinois.
Northwestern has looked progressively worse since arriving home from Ireland with a 31-28 victory over Nebraska. Despite the soft competition, the Cats rank 10th in the Big Ten in total defense and 13th against the run.
Fitzgerald has worked magic in the past, parlaying smarts and stingy defense into B1G West titles in 2018 and 2020. But no such thing will be happening in this even-numbered year. This group that has sputtered in front of half-empty bleachers at Ryan Field isn’t going into Beaver Stadium and pulling an upset as a 25.5-point underdog.
Penn State’s second-quarter implosion made Saturday’s 33-14 victory over Central Michigan more nerve-wracking than it needed to be. But the No. 11 Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0) have done nothing this season to suggest they won’t take care of business in their final tune-up before and epic B1G East showdown at Michigan on Oct. 15.
This time, Penn State isn’t coming off an emotionally draining road victory. This time, Penn State stays home to play in front of 106,000+ for the 3rd time this year. Northwestern’s best home crowd this year had 80,000 less in attendance. That’s just one indication of the gulf between these programs. I won’t bore you with the recent recruiting disparity, other than to say Northwestern’s class hasn’t ranked higher than 11th in the B1G since 2016, when it was 10th.
Scouting the Wildcats
Versatile running back Evan Hull was averaging 100 yards both rushing and receiving before cooling off against the RedHawks. The 5-11, 210-pound junior still leads the nation in yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards, so he’ll have Manny Diaz’s attention.
Quarterback Ryan Hilinski, in his 2nd season since transferring from South Carolina, has cooled off after a blazing start. After 2 games, he was averaging a B1G-best 374.5 passing yards per game. That number is down to 298.5, and he’s thrown 3 picks along with his 5 TDs.
Highly regarded left tackle Peter Skoronski anchors the offensive line. The unit was expected to be a team strength and has protected Hilinski fairly well, but so far the Cats rank 12th in the B1G at 3.62 yards per carry.
On defense, Bryce Gallagher leads the way with 38 tackles and fellow linebacker Xander Mueller has 2 of the team’s 4 interceptions and a sack. But overall, this is a unit that gave up 460+ yards to the Huskers and Blue Devils. Last Saturday, it allowed 128 rushing yards and 10 points in the final 8 minutes to hand the RedHawks a victory.
What I expect to see
- Nick Singleton will bust a couple more long runs and top 100 yards for the 3rd time in 4 games. Fellow freshman back Kaytron Allen will thrive as well, and the duo will post their best combined rushing total of the season. Maybe they both top 100 yards this time.
- Sean Clifford takes the easy throws off play-action, looks for tight end Brenton Strange a lot and avoids a mid-game cold spell for a change.
- Drew Allar enters before the fourth quarter, erasing any question about the 5-star freshman quarterback red-shirting. (Not that there should have been any doubt about that.)
- The offensive line, which has allowed only 1 sack in the past 2 games, continues to make progress.
- Penn State’s defensive back end limits Hilinski to his lowest passing yards total of the season.
- Diaz’s high-pressure defense gives up a couple more big plays, but also produces multiple sacks and turnovers for the 3rd straight game.
- Barney Amor spinning punts every which way but forward into the end zone, assuming Penn State even needs to punt.
What I’d like to see
- A perfect day from place-kicker Jake Pinegar, who’s just 3-of-5 so far on fields goals and 18-of-20 on PATs.
- A killer instinct from the Lions, the kind Ohio State showed in racing to a 28-0 lead after 4 offensive possessions against Wisconsin. This is PSU’s last dress rehearsal before it faces undefeated powerhouse programs Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State in succession. (And yes, this year, Minnesota belongs in that sentence.)
At some point in the first half, Penn State will put the game away with a quick spurt — a long TD run, followed by a forced turnover and another score, perhaps. After that, the fans get to see a lot of Allar and the rest of the team’s dynamic freshmen.
The Lions head into their bye week 5-0 with a pending top 10 ranking. They’re sky high ahead of the season-defining trip to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines. Grumpy Penn State fans remain pessimistic and doubtful, pointing out that the team hasn’t done anything other than beat a succession of unranked underdogs so far. The rest of Nittany Nation insists it sees something fresh and exciting — and just plain better — in this squad over the ones that went 11-11 the past 2 seasons.
Penn State 38, Northwestern 10