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3 things we learned from Northwestern 29, Penn State 6

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Well that was exciting.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was something. Northwestern started its Big Ten season with a win in Happy Valley on Saturday, demolishing Penn State 29-6. The defense was incredible and the offense was good enough, despite missing some opportunities. This is a major boost for a program that had fallen on hard times in the past year, even if the Wildcats are just 2-2. Here are the three things we learned from this game.

1. Northwestern's defense is really, really good.

It may not have looked like it earlier in the season, since Cal and NIU ran a lot of plays (and subsequently got a lot of points), but Northwestern has been really, really good on defense this season. But this performance takes the cake. The defense was absolutely dominant, particularly in the front seven. This is pretty hard to believe, but the Northwestern defense was far more talented than the Penn State offense, and it showed.

The young players were particularly impressive. Anthony Walker, who was everywhere on the field for the Wildcats in starting for Collin Ellis and has the potential to be a star at middle linebacker, capped it off with a pick six that effectively ended the game. Xavier Washington, a true freshman defensive end, put a huge hit on Hackenberg that forced a fumble and REALLY ended the game.

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Then, Greg Kuhar — a new starter this year at defensive tackle, who has contributed to NU's vastly improved run defense — REALLY REALLY ended the game by blowing up a Penn State fourth down attempt.

Here's a sampling of Penn State's offensive stats with a sure-fire NFL QB:

  • 3.75 yards per play
  • 2 yards per rush
  • 4.8 yards per pass attempt

It was an incredible effort from the defense, which as Ibraheim Campbell has said, has a "new level of athlete" this year. The recruiting is paying off, and hats off to defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who dialed up blitzes and never let the Penn State offense get comfortable.

The one low point for the defense was the injury of Matt Harris. Harris took a really hard hit to the head from Christian Hackenberg and was down for several minutes in front of an eerily silent Beaver Stadium. He was carted off and gave a thumbs up, but that was a really scary moment. Here's to hoping he's okay — whether he can come back and play football or not.

Update: Great news on Matt Harris!

2. The offense showed flashes, but it has a ways to go

The Northwestern offense came out slinging in the first half and it looked like the NU offense of old. The Wildcats spread the field, Trevor Siemian was hitting his receivers and the offensive line was far better than it has been at any point this year. Moreover, the Wildcats got the tight ends involved more, which we had suggested might get them out of their funk. That's what this offense can be ... even if it only lasted for one quarter.

Starting in the second quarter, the Siemian started sailing passes, and the running game never got going until the game was no longer in doubt. But that isn't on the coaches, who put together their best offensive gameplan of the season. Kudos to the offensive line, as well, which played like it should have all season, and did so against the best defensive front that it has faced. Siemian has work to do, and this offense isn't going to blow anyone out, but it just might be good enough for NU to make some noise in the Big Ten.

3. So about that Big Ten race ...

As we've chronicled numerous times, the Big Ten is pretty bad this year. If Northwestern can beat Penn State like this, it can absolutely play with everyone else on the schedule. Wisconsin comes to town next week after struggling with a bad USF team today. While the Badgers have put up incredible rushing numbers against bad defenses, the Wildcats have a good defense, and they can certainly force Tanner McEvoy into mistakes.

We might want to reserve judgement until that game, since this is the first complete game NU put together. However, there's no reason to think that the Wildcats can't give a scare to the preseason Big Ten West favorites. But at least this gets NU well into the conversation to make a bowl game after a slow start to the season ... and possibly in position to do a little bit more.