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Northwestern grades vs. Penn State

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The defense earned high marks for its performance, but how did the rest of the team do?

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback: B

The Good: Trevor Siemian came out sharp in the first quarter. He looked like the Siemian of 2012. He didn’t force anything. He just fed his skill guys in space on simple patterns and let them do the rest. He ran the no huddle offense with tempo and decisiveness, getting the ball out of his hand quickly. And it worked. The Cats marched downfield with ease and pounced to a 14-point lead. "We haven’t caught a rhythm like that all year," Siemian said after the game. Siemian also ran for three touchdowns, which is more than he’s thrown for this season.

The Bad: Siemian didn’t play as well in the second half. He missed wide open receivers and overthrew some long balls because according to Fitz, Siemian’s "feet were not set." Siemian also threw an interception in the third quarter. He struggled to move the chains and convert in the red zone. Second-half Siemian played like he did in the first three games. For this team to win more Big Ten games, Siemian has to play well for all 60 minutes.

Stats: 21/37 (57 percent completion), 258 yards passing, 5 rushes for -8 yards and three touchdowns (wow)

Running Backs: C+ There wasn’t much running from either team. Justin Jackson led all rushers with 50 yards on 15 carries and 17 yards receiving and Warren Long added 49 yards on nine carries. Those numbers don’t seem impressive, but Penn State has the best rush defense in the nation at just 49.5 yards allowed per game (before today). While it wasn’t the most noteworthy performance from the backs—Siemian outshined them on the ground and he rushed for negative eight yards—they weren’t factored as much into the game plan like they were in the "power running" sets we saw last game.

Wide receivers: B+ The receivers played well. Dan Vitale tore up the middle of the Penn State defense, catching a game-high seven catches for 113 yards. Tony Jones only caught three passes for 31 yards in his return, but one of them was a tough back-shoulder catch down the sideline that set up NU’s second touchdown. Most importantly, there were no drops today.

Offensive line: B+ During the bye week I wrote that the offensive line was the position group underperforming the most (LINK). But today the o-line did a great job. Siemian had plenty of time to throw and was only sacked once. The o-line created enough push for each of Siemian’s TD sneaks and did not get flagged for holding.

Place kicking: F I know he’s a walk-on, but Jack Mitchell had a terrible game. He missed a 44-yard field goal and TWO extra points. To be fair Mitchell did make a 23-yard field goal…

Special Teams A- I separated this category from the last one because the rest of the special teams group played really well. Northwestern dominated the field position battle in the first half. On average Northwestern started each offensive drive at its own 47 yard-line. Some of this great field position was due to stout defense, but the kick/punt receive teams also had a couple big returns. The Cats also pinned Penn State inside its 20-yard line most of the time on kickoffs.

Defensive Line and Linebackers: A These two position groups played incredibly well, even without Collin Ellis. Northwestern held Penn State to 79 yards rushing and applied constant pressure on Christian Hackenberg. The front seven combined for four sacks, nine tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a pick six and one special performance. The front seven won Northwestern this game.

Secondary: A- Despite a scary injury to corner Mathew Harris and another injury to Ibraheim Campbell, the secondary showed its depth and shut down Christian Hackenberg. Godwin Igwebuike stepped in for Campbell and played well at safety and NU snapped Hackenberg’s streak of 300-yard passing games. Hack threw the ball 45 times for 216 games for 4.8 yards per attempt. The secondary only gave up one big play: a 51-yard pass to DaeSean Hamilton.

Coaching B Schematically, the offense looked different. Northwestern swayed from what Dan Vitale called "vanilla" play calling from last week, abandoning the power running scheme and getting back to the basics of the spread. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz gets an A for the defensive performance. Pat Fitzgerald loses points for faking that field goal in the first quarter instead of taking the easy three points. While many criticize Fitz for being too conservative, he was way too aggressive in that situation. But Fitz gets extra credit for regrouping his team after the Harris injury. After Harris was carted off (he cleared all tests at the hospital and flew back with the team), Fitz huddled up the entire team and gave them a pep talk. Whatever he said worked—the defense then forced two turnovers on consecutive plays.