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Three matchups to watch against Penn State

Nationally televised games bring nationally renowned players.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get a better sense of this Week Five matchup. Picture a jet headed straight for the clouds at 150 miles per hour. Maybe there’s some doubt that you’ll get off the ground on time after the old pilot gets everyone into the cabin abnormally But with how smooth the plane’s takeoff has been, you wonder if a human’s even controlling that thing. Now picture an asteroid hurtling to the ground at twice the speed. I’ll let you guess who’s who.

Things look dire for Northwestern (1-3, 1-0 B1G) as it heads to Happy Valley, to say the least. No. 11 Penn State (4-0, 1-0 B1G) has appeared almost invincible after squeaking out a 35-31 nail-biter in its opener at Purdue, including by winning by 29 points at Auburn on Sept. 17. For the ‘Cats to have any chance of bouncing back from three straight losses to Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (OH), they will have to play almost perfectly on both sides of the ball. It starts with these three matchups:

Northwestern’s interior offensive line vs. P.J. Mustipher

Coming off a knee injury that prematurely ended his 2021 season, the Penn State nose tackle hasn’t gotten off to the greatest of starts this year. But Mustipher has steadily improved by the week, and his 6-foot-4, 318-pound frame provides a unique anchor to PSU’s speed-heavy defensive line. The fifth-year senior was so impactful against the run in 2021 that he still earned second-team All-Big Ten honors even though he only started six games.

It’s not like Northwestern’s linemen are too small. Charlie Schmidt is just ten pounds lighter than Mustipher, while Josh Priebe and Ethan Wiederkehr are each an inch taller. But that didn’t stop them from struggling to create running lanes for Evan Hull against the RedHawks all game long. Mustipher may not be the one racking up all the tackles, but he could free up linebackers to stifle Hull if the ‘Cats need to double-team him every play. And if there’s one way Northwestern can possibly overwhelm the Nittany Lions to pull off the upset, it’s on the ground.

Bryce Gallagher and Co. vs. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen

The only thing scarier than this duo’s combined 593 rushing yards on almost eight yards a carry thus far is the fact that they’re both freshmen. Against a veteran-heavy Auburn defense that ranked 20th in the country in Football Outsiders’ defensive Fremeau Efficiency Index last season, Singleton ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries. Allen, the change-of-pace back, added two scores of his own on 5.8 yards per carry. Any more shades of Braelon (no relation), and the ‘Cats will be in big trouble.

Northwestern’s run defense has not been effective at all since beating Nebraska a month ago. Many factors are to blame for that, one of which is the unit’s failure to tackle well at the second level. Look no further than Keyon Mozee’s 66-yard run last Saturday to put an exclamation point on his 171-yard day.

Now that Coco Azema — arguably the team’s best open-field tackler — may not play after leaving Saturday’s game with another injury, there’s an even bigger onus on the linebackers to finish plays. It will be difficult for every-down defenders like Gallagher to keep up with the fresh legs in Penn State’s backfield, but Northwestern has to limit big plays to win.

Malik Washington vs. Daequan Hardy

Both players came into 2022 with fairly high expectations following very good 2021 seasons. Both have occasionally thrived, but have also had their struggles. Hardy, Penn State’s slot corner, got off to a very good start after recording a late-game pass breakup against the Boilermakers that sparked Sean Clifford’s game-winning drive. However, the 5-foot-9 cornerback has had his moments where he’s been challenged by covering bigger receivers, especially against Auburn.

On the other hand, Washington has probably been NU’s most consistent offensive weapon outside of Hull, but he hasn’t always come through in bigger moments. His two fumbles against Miami occurred in field goal range and on a potential game-tying drive, respectively. Regardless, his battle with Hardy in the slot should be a good one. If Washington wins out, Ryan Hilinski can push the ball farther downfield and with more efficiency.

That’s especially important when considering that Joey Porter Jr. can potentially take away an entire half of the field. Working from the outside, The Nagurski Trophy Watch List honoree may not cover the slot-heavy Washington that often. Nevertheless, Porter poses a dangerous threat as a playmaker — one Hilinski will likely try to avoid. With fewer options available, it’s imperative that the quarterback can depend on his top receiver as a steady target.