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Know Your Opponent, Week 1: Penn State

The Wildcats’ first opponent of the year is arguably their toughest.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The final installment of our 2020 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

Up first are the Penn State Nittany Lions, who routed the ‘Cats 31-7 when they last met in 2017. They enter 2020 ranked seventh, the highest of NU’s scheduled opponents and second-highest in the Big Ten to Ohio State. However, they’ll be without the services of their most prominent player, linebacker Micah Parsons, who recently opted out of the 2020 season and declared for the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Basics

Returning Production: 69 percent (Offense 74 percent, Defense 63 percent)

2019 record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Coach: James Franklin

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2019 S&P+ Overall: 6th

2019 S&P+ Offense: 13th

2019 S&P+ Defense: 10th

2019 Capsule

Heading into the season ranked 15th in the AP poll, Penn State started off hot. The Nittany Lions secured victories in each of their first eight contests, including a 79-7 rout of Idaho in their season opener, a 59-0 blowout of Maryland in their Big Ten opener and a 28-21 win over Michigan in their annual white-out game. Their ninth opponent of the year was upstart Minnesota, who, despite being home underdogs, defeated the Nittany Lions 31-26, gaining national recognition in the process.

Penn State then won its following game, a home matchup with Indiana, setting themselves up for an East division showdown with Ohio State. With a loss already on their record, the game was essentially a must-win for PSU’s College Football Playoff and Big Ten Championship hopes. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, Justin Fields and the Buckeyes prevailed, clinching the Big Ten East.

Following a regular season finale victory over Rutgers, PSU outscored AAC champs Memphis 53-39 in a shootout Cotton Bowl. Five Nittany Lions were drafted, including standout wide receiver KJ Hamler and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. All in all, Penn State averaged 413 total offensive yards per game, led by a strong ground game averaging nearly 200 yards per contest, and allowed 347 yards per game.

Offensive Overview

Despite their impressive season and final ranking of tenth, Penn State’s offense was fairly weak for a program of their prestige. They ranked 57th in total yards per game, with their rushing and passing games ranked 36th and 76th in the nation by yardage, respectively.

Despite such mediocre numbers, the Nittany Lions’ offense shows a lot of potential for improvement in the 2020 season. Both starting quarterback Sean Clifford and primary backs Noah Cain and Journey Brown are back for another year. Clifford and Brown both project to be mid-round NFL draft picks next year, and a dominant season from either one — or both — could boost their stock.

In terms of receiving, while the now-departed Hamler was the leading pass catcher for Penn State last year by a wide margin, the Nittany Lions return starting tight end, Pat Freiermuth, and their other main receiver, Jahan Dotson. The two combined for 12 touchdowns last season and look likely to improve upon those numbers in the absence of Hamler, who had hauled in eight scores in 2019.

Still, James Franklin has employed run-heavy schemes in past years successfully, and looks likely to do the same against Northwestern in Week 1. The ‘Cats normally are more stout up front than they are in the secondary, however they return more of their starting defensive backfield than the defensive line. Fans should expect to see Brown get his fair share of touches and should be on the lookout for quarterback runs from Clifford, who rushed for 402 yards of his own last season.

Defensive Overview

The Nittany Lions’ front seven was one of the best in college football in 2019, holding opponents to an average of under 100 yards rushing per game. An average of 16 points per game against was good enough for the eighth best scoring defense in the FBS last year, but their pass defense was flimsy at times, allowing over 250 yards passing per game and ranking 100th in the FBS.

Up front, interior linemen Antonio Shelton and P.J. Mustipher will be a handful, particularly when defending the run. While defensive ends Shaka Toney and Jayson Owen are somewhat undersized, their athleticism makes them dynamic pass rushers and problem causers in protection on the edges. However, the Nittany Lions will depend on their second level to adequately defend the run.

The largest hole in Penn State’s roster is left by Parsons at weak-side linebacker. Though the depth in that linebacking room is considerable, nobody in college football can truly replace Parsons’ playmaking ability. His roommate, Jesse Luketa, will aim to do just that, but expect some shuffling of personnel as defensive coordinator Brent Pry tries to find a combination that works, particularly on pass-rushing downs.

Penn State lost two of its starting defensive backs to the NFL, forcing corner Keaton Ellis and safety Jaquan Brisker into action. Both have little experience and could be weak spots in pass coverage, particularly in the season opener. Returning safety Lamont Wade should be a plus from the other safety spot, but corner Tariq Castro-Fields remains a question mark in terms of consistency. If the offensive line can adequately protect whoever starts under center, the ‘Cats could start 2020 off right by establishomg their passing game against an inexperienced and inconsistent secondary.

Three Players to Know

Journey Brown, RB

Facing a run-heavy offensive scheme, the NU defense is sure to get a healthy diet of Journey Brown during their first bout of the season. Brown burst onto the CFB scene in the Cotton Bowl, notching 202 yards in just 16 carries against Memphis. After Noah Cain went down with an injury, Brown rushed for 100 or more yards four times in the last five games. He showed plenty of speed in 2019 and has added weight this offseason to improve his power. A trendy pick for a top-5 RB, Brown will look to improve his already monstrous 6.9 yards per carry average from last year.

Pat Freiermuth, TE

A projected first-round pick in next year’s draft, Freiermuth is as complete of a tight end as you’ll find in college football. He’s already drawing comparisons to NFL talent at the tight end spot and has a shot to prove scouts right. With the departure of Hamler, Freiermuth is staged to become the primary target in the Nittany Lions’ passing offense while also providing above-average in-line blocking.

P.J. Mustipher, DT

Mustipher has the ability to be one of the best interior linemen in the country. Penn State will need him to anchor the front seven, particularly with the absence of Parsons. While run stopping has always been in his job description, for the Nittany Lions to remain a top defensive unit, they’ll need a more consistent pass rush starting with Mustipher.