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Williams: Analyzing the Penn State upset

Northwestern's "Next Man Up" proved to be the biggest factor in their win at Happy Valley

Justin K. Aller

Last Friday, I did a piece on the 5 things I was going to watch that I thought would have the biggest impact on the outcome of Saturday's game against Penn State. Not to toot my own horn, but all five were 100 precent spot on, and we also got to see some pleasant surprises. I started off with this:

Overall, Northwestern just needs to gain confidence. I think they can do that by coming out of the gates swinging and getting on the scoreboard first. That would energize this team. If we can see a confident Trevor, a new found consistency with Tony Jones back, a few new wrinkles on 3rd down from both sides of the ball and stop any PSU running attack, we MAY be able to pull this one off.

Well that "MAY" turned into what should have been a 30+ point rout. That "MAY" turned confidence into swagger, "MAY" turned into this actually looking like a Northwestern football team of recent memory. I had thought that if they had did a few of these things, they would keep it a tight game. I guess when all five items go your way, it turns into a route. This team is starting to improve at the right spot on its schedule.

Lets take a recap of what we all saw Saturday:

Trevor Siemian

Trevor looked like he was getting closer to the Trevor we all had anticipated him to be. He's not there yet, but he's on his way. I do believe he got some confidence back, and he showed that through his patience and progressions. The OL actually came through this weekend and put up some very good protection, and Siemian looked to have just about the perfect amount of patience in his reads, and didn't get rid of the ball too quickly or hold onto it too long.

However, from what I saw, he is still making some poor throws. Had the receivers dropped some balls like they did in the first two weeks, his play would have looked exponentially worse. Most of his off passes sailed on him. That could be due to his foot injury and not completing his mechanics. So hopefully we can see him have a little better touch as his injury starts to fully heal. If the OL can continue to keep him clean, from the improvements we saw from the first couple weeks to now, I think Siemian can progress into quite the passer this year.

Wide Receivers

This group was certainly critical to the success of the offense. They had very few, if any, drops. The only one that comes to mind was one to the back of the end zone by Prater. Jones brought back some consistency that was terribly missed, and I felt that Jones helped spread the defensive coverage just enough to get some other guys open. Had Siemian been a bit more on target with 5-8 of his passes, this group would have had a spectacular day. They looked great on the perimeter and downfield passing, as well as blocking. The ball was spread to 10 different receivers, five of whom had two or more receptions. This is progress, people!!!

What allowed Vitale to get involved more in the vertical seam routes was the offensive line and running backs' ability to keep Siemian clean. So hats off to them after being called out time and time again. This allowed us to not have to keep our TE/SB in for protection on critical downs. If we can continue to see that kind of protection, this offense can really start to open things up.

Front Seven on 1st and 2nd Down

To say we won 1st and 2nd down would be a complete and utter understatement. They dominated. I can not recall the last time we held a team to under 50 yards rushing, or if we ever have. It was one of the most impressive defensive outings I've seen in Big Ten play out of the Cats. They won 1st and 2nd down handily and allowed Hankwitz to dial it up more often than not on 3rd down. By absolutely owning the point of attack and the line of scrimmage, PSU wasn't able to allow Hackenberg to rely on play action for easy throws. Once our front seven was able to get into 3rd down, they were able to dial up and put tons of pressure right in Hackenbergs face and change the game in our favor.

They had to do all of this in order to keep this Penn State offense in check, and they went way beyond the call of duty. They put the pressure on Hack on third down, affected his pass game for a couple TO's, caused some fumbles and came out with a HUGE 4th down stop. Great play making abilities out of them, and great schemes coming out of Hankwitz. If we can see this week-in and week-out, then they have the potential to keep this Northwestern team in the driver's seat for a lot of games throughout the remainder of this year's schedule.

Offensive Scheme

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." - Apparently the coaches finally took their own medicine and stuck to one offensive scheme at least for the first 30 minutes.

The first 30 minutes were a spectacular showing of what this offense is capable of, even with a (sometimes) subpar offensive line. They stuck to what they're good at, spreading the ball around to different guys to everywhere on the field. We saw very few 22 or 23 personnel packages, and the only time we did was for QB sneaks on the 1 yard line, which apparently work a lot more effectively than our power run game out of that package. I did feel like all our cards were shown, and that's fine. That's how it should be. Wisconsin is going to have more work to do this week because of it.

What had me concerned the most was at one point we went back to the uber-conservative running schemes with what was really only a 1 possession game. It just had a feeling that we were going to let PSU back into it, and we almost did. Thankfully. we had our defense playing their tails off and had a big big pick-six to completely change momentum. But still, kudos to McCall and Fitz for getting things back in the right direction offensively after that as well. I mentioned the coaches would likely try to run the ball to control the game 10-15 times before they realized they couldn't, I'm at least glad it happened when it did.

Head scratching moment: In the 3rd quarter we had to take a timeout because the play clock was running to zero, but the offensive still went through 95% of the play. It was a outside zone run call into the boundary. They lined right back up in nearly the exact formation and did the same play. The result was a 2-3 yard TFL. I know we haven't had to play with a lead except for against WIU, but man did it feel scary there for about 2-3 drives in the third quarter. I don't like relying on defenses to win games when you can easily do so on offense. Thankfully, a 15-point fourth quarter sealed the deal.

Next Man Up

We all knew Godwin Igwebuike was capable of playing in for Campbell, but man did Anthony Walker come out of nowhere. This kid is something special. Watching this game, I thought to myself that this is a breed of middle linebacker that Northwestern has never seen. Flying over the field, through gaps, blitzing and pressuring the QB, and looked great in pass coverage. What a great way to start your first game. I thought Hankwitz was going to have to blitz him a lot to make him fly around in order to take away too many mistakes, which he did, but at least from without watching the film, I don't think it would have mattered. Kid's got some swagger to him to. Another pleasant surprise: Xavier Washington, who I had heard was a great player and just a tad undersized, but he played a great game for the Cats up front in the rotation. If he can add a little weight on, he will be a special player.

So whats next for these guys?

I don't want to jump the gun on Walker until I re-watch the game or see him through another game, but one thing is sure as sure can be: Anthony Walker needs to be getting 75 percent of the snaps somewhere on the field. The problem is, Collin Ellis is too good of a player to keep off the field. Walker looked like a more natural fit for a MLB, and I wouldn't be surprised to eventually see Collin get moved over to Sam or Will and push Jimmy Hall to strictly coming in for third down nickelback duties. Fitz won't start Walker over Collin, and I don't think he should. However, I do think that he needs to see a lot more playing time, even if that means moving some guys around. With run heavy Wisconsin coming up, the decision should at least be a little easier to make. This is certainly a good problem to have, but some guys' feelings are going to get hurt, so it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Looking forward

This was a great win, no doubt about it. It was a win that needed to happen to have any hope for the remainder of the season. Not to cool off too much, but we have to get back down to reality here. We expected Northwestern to look like this by week five, and that wasn't just some homerism. Also, Penn State was not overly impressive in any of its four wins. and the Nittany Lions' offensive line clearly has a lot of holes in it. It wouldn't surprise me to see them lose four Big Ten games this year. Plus, James Franklin is a bum of a coach, who is going to single-handily turn Hackenberg into a free agent pick up come his departure to the NFL.

We can't allow this week against Wisconsin to turn into a hangover game. What surprised me is that we still won after eight penalties and one big terrible review which led to a 10 point swing at the end of the day. That Harris fumble-TD review still bugs me. They let the play go on, then saw the outcome of the play, and knew in order to keep it a TD they'd have to rule it such, but didn't — they ruled it incomplete, which makes it 10 times harder to overturn. Spectacular play by Matt Harris, great coverage/tackle/strip/recovery/TD and thankfully is recovering just fine after that scary hit he took from a lowered helmet of a 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback (yes, that's me saying its a bullshit non-targeting call and a shame they don't call it both ways). Five years ago I wouldn't make a big deal about it, it would just be a "football play." If they change the rules and have rules in place to prevent both offenders and defenders from using their helmet, then they have to call it justly. Hackenberg should have been ejected from the game. But I digress.

The staff has some decisions to make at the linebacker spots. Walker has to play somewhere, plain and simple. As I mentioned earlier, it will be a lot easier of a choice since we're playing Wisconsin. If our defense continues their dominance, and can continue to improve in the return game and on the OL and QB play, they could potentially be a B1G dark horse, but I'm not buying that until this upcoming game. I know Hankwitz has the game planning abilities to stop Melvin Gordon and their rushing attack, which makes me excited to see Tanner McEvoy run around looking like a chicken with his head cut off from our pass rush. We got in a hole last year to a better Wisconsin team from a few early turnovers. If we can play a similar game as this past one, with a few improvements, there is no reason we can't expect another W in the win column over a more formidable opponent than a still sanction depleted Penn State team coached by overrated James Franklin.