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Northwestern won at Penn State: Now what?

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What should we expect from the Wildcats following Saturday's win at Penn State?

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern won at Penn State on Saturday amid an unlikely set of circumstances. The Nittany Lions had shown themselves to be a solid, if not conference-contender-worthy, outfit through the first four weeks of the season - with a future NFL quarterback, a dangerous group of receivers and a stout run defense.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, had played so poorly over its first three games that ESPN.com ranked them the worst team in the conference. Writers on this site and outside it were asking whether the program had slipped. Northwestern had lost nine of its previous 11 games and looked totally unprepared for conference play.

The Penn State win has prompted a reevaluation. Were we underrating this Northwestern team? Did they finally, after weeks of lackluster performances, put it all together? Have they turned a corner? Or was this merely a positive blip in Northwestern's continuing downward spiral? Frankly, I don't know.

At his postgame news conference, Pat Fitzgerald said his team's losses this season came down to poor execution - missed catches, bad blocks, that sort of stuff. He said the Wildcats did nothing significantly different scheme-wise against Penn State, a notion echoed by superback Dan Vitale when I asked him.

If that's the case, then there's two ways to look at what this win means going forward for Northwestern. Poor execution isn't something that can be fixed overnight, or ever, for that matter. It just happens. Even great teams execute poorly from time to time, and they often pay for it with a loss.

Are there some teams that tend to make fewer mistakes than others? Yes. But even the squads that we hold up as paragons of disciplined, error-free football - Kansas State under Bill Snyder, to note one example - can screw up in big games. Stanford crossed USC's 30-yard line eight times in a game earlier this year and came away with 13 points.

One can look at Northwestern's win Saturday over Penn State and say, ‘They're going to execute that well all the time!' But that's probably being a bit too optimistic. Duly noting a few glaring mishaps - the roughing the punter call, the missed extra points, the fake field goal - Northwestern played an excellent game.

This was the Wildcats operating near their peak. If they slip even a little bit - if their performance trends closer to what we saw against Cal, Northern Illinois and Western Illinois - then they will be far more susceptible to losses in conference play than what their effort on Saturday indicated. Don't get too excited, in other words.

The other way to look at the Penn State win is that Northwestern's excellent "execution" was a matter of correcting mistakes. Now that the Wildcats have fixed what ailed them during their 1-2 start, they can reasonably expect to perform at the level they did Saturday for the rest of the season.

There had been talk of more accountability in practices, with players asked to do up-downs after committing mistakes. Maybe what we saw on Saturday is the result of all that - maybe the tougher practices and a genuine commitment to improvement helped excise all the general clunkiness evinced in previous games.

One conclusion a lot of folks,including writers on this website, seemed willing to draw is that Northwestern's defense is legitimately, Big Ten-level good. It's easy to see why many would have the same impression. The Wildcats played extremely well on that side of the ball, and there were GIFs and Vines, lots of them!

Christian Hackenberg completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes for 216 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception. Penn State totaled 50 rushing yards on 2.0 yards per attempt. Eight different Lions pass-catchers recorded receptions but only one of them logged more than 33 receiving yards.

Near the end of the game, Penn State's offense was so out of sorts, one offensive lineman blocked his own freaking teammate. It was quintessential #BIG.

Pennstateplayersblockingthemselves_medium

But for as promising as Northwestern's defense looked, let's keep things in perspective. Penn State's offensive line is, in two words, really bad. Hackenberg was under siege seemingly the entire game, with Ifeadi Odenigbo and Dean Lowry and others pressuring him into poor throws.

The Lions' run game never got going, either, which didn't help Hackenberg, or the offense in general, develop any sort of rhythm. The Wildcats' defense played its best game of the season, no doubt, and it's hard not to be impressed by the way young guys like Xavier Washington and Anthony Walker looked.

But Penn State should not be confused for an elite offensive team. It was only two weeks ago that they managed only 13 points in a three-point win at Rutgers. They now rank 10th among Big Ten teams in yards per play, 13th in rushing yards per play and 84th nationally in Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings.

We should get a better feel for how good Northwestern's defense is next week against Wisconsin. The Badgers have their own offensive warts - their quarterback play has been dodgy, for one, so they probably won't beat you through the air - but they might well be one of the best running teams in the country.

Can Northwestern stop Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, behind an offensive line that isn't, you know, totally inept?

You'll recall what happened in last year's meeting: Gordon rushed for 172 yards at 7.8 yards per clip, James White added 101 at 5.3 and the Badgers repeatedly, mercilessly, rammed the ball down Northwestern's throat because they knew they could. Because the Wildcats had no means to so much as stand in their way.

Northwestern's run defense might fare better this time around, but we won't know for sure until Saturday's game.

Offensively, Northwestern looked sharp during the first quarter. Trevor Siemian completed 11 of his 15 pass attempts to four different receiver for 150 yards, leading the Wildcats on two crisp touchdown drives and putting Penn State's defense on its heels. Also, Miles Shuler's 42-yard punt return was as impressive as his sock game.

But the offense sputtered over the remaining three quarters. Siemian completed only 10 more passes for 108 yards, and you saw doses of the sort of dull playcalling that hurt Northwestern over its first three contests. It didn't help that the Wildcats' rushing attack produced only 50 yards on 2.7 ypc.

It's worth noting that Penn State entered Saturday boasting one of the top rush defense in the nation, and there were some positive takeaways from the way the Wildcats' offense played. Still, it's concerning that they weren't able to sustain the momentum generated during that hot, two-touchdown start.

There's no taking away from how big of a win this was. Northwestern needed a potentially season-changing, trajectory shifting victory, and it delivered in a spot few expected them to. Let's see whether, in the coming weeks, the Wildcats play more like they did on Saturday or the three games before that.