Despite the loss, the Wildcats surpassed expectations this week. Holding this Penn State offense to only 17 points and at least staying in the game until late was more than any Northwestern fan could ask for after the abysmal mess that was out-of-conference play. That partial success came from the defense, specifically in its ability to turn the ball over. If the Wildcats’ offense could muster even one scoring drive after a turnover, this game could have been in upset range for the ‘Cats.
Xander Mueller and Bryce Gallagher
It seems as if Jim O’Neil decided to mimic Central Michigan’s strategy against Penn State, and he crowded the box with his front seven the key to stopping the usually strong Penn State rushing attack. The Nittany Lions combined to run for 220 yards on 58 carries but also had four fumbles. To make this strategy work, Xander Mueller and Bryce Gallagher were significant. To halt the inside run, Northwestern’s top two linebackers wreaked havoc around the line of scrimmage and in coverage: Gallagher collected an interception, and the two joined forces to force and recover a fumble in the second quarter. Wherever the ball went, at least one of them was there, and they were crucial to supporting the D-line against the three-headed Penn State rushing attack.
When Mike Yurcich and James Franklin realized the interior was clogged by the Wildcat front seven, they were forced to shift their run and short pass game to the outside. And once the Nittany Lion O started to balance inside and outside tackle play, Mitchell turned his game up to another level. In State College, Mitchell secured a loose fumble, more than doubled his season solo-tackle totals and even got behind the line of scrimmage to collect a quarterback hurry and tackle for loss against Nick Singleton. Mitchell proved that he can compete in a hard-nosed, run-heavy Big Ten game this week, matching the physicality and speed that Penn State brought to the table.
Honorable Mentions: Old-school football, Marshall Lang, Hunter Renner, Garnett Hollis Jr.
Offensive line play
Peter Skoronski is still good, but other linemen have continued to leave doubt about whether they can be the foundation of the Wildcat offense. Time after time, the interior offensive line would collapse on inside rush plays, averaging a pitiful 1.1 yards per carry. Often, the IOL simply lacked the flexibility to react to defenders beyond the line, double-teaming a defensive end while a linebacker sprinted through the gap. Off the snap, the Wildcats lacked the tenacity and quickness to match the Nittany Lions, and the line was often pushed back feet within seconds of the snap. Ethan Wiederkehr was especially disappointing this week, as Chop Robinson was able to consistently generate pressure. Perhaps the nadir of the day was the second-half Wildcats’ second-half fumble, where center Charlie Schmidt’s low snap killed a Wildcat drive at midfield.
Hilisnki has been nowhere near impressive since his Week Zero performance against Nebraska. But this week, his throws seemed to lack even more accuracy than before. On short routes to receivers with plenty of space, Hilinski spiked it into the turf on multiple occasions, and even on better passes (including the long pass to Malik Washington), throws were off their intended target. Hilinski’s deep heaves over the heads of his receivers have become a recurring image this season, and in the first half today, an embarrassingly bad Hilinski overthrow (this one to Navarro only 20 yards away) led to a drive-ending interception by Ji’Ayir Brown. And to make matters worse, Hilinski’s mishandling of an admittedly bad snap and a fumble in the second added two more turnovers to a turnover-laden bout. It’s been significantly more steps down than up for the signal-caller.
Capitalizing on turnovers
Five turnovers usually leads to at least a field goal. But against Penn State, the Wildcats beat the odds in the worst possible way, managing an embarrassing zero points off their abundance of takeaways. While the defense certainly deserves praise for its ability to cause Penn State to cough up the football, it was all for naught in the long run as Northwestern’s lifeless offense continued to turn field position and momentum into either turnovers or short three-and-outs. At one point, the ‘Cats gained a game-shifting fumble at the Penn State 28, but Hilinski lost the ball only two plays later. If the Wildcats hope to beat more talented teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin, they have to be able to convert on favorable bounces. If not, they’ll be forced to fight an uphill battle week after week.
Honorable Mentions: Penn State crowd, Mike Bajakian, Sean Clifford