Northwestern travels to State College, Pa. this week, and after three straight losses, the mood among Wildcat fans is dreary. Penn State is 4-0, its defense has been lights out, and James Franklin is starting the first year of his ten-year extension exactly how he envisioned it. At the moment, the Wildcats and Nittany Lions are polar opposites of one another, and frankly, the list of why Northwestern won’t win could have gone on for much, much longer. But, to stay optimistic, here are three reasons the Wildcats will win and three reasons they won’t win.
Why Northwestern will beat Penn State
For the second straight week, Evan Hull is the first reason why Northwestern might win. After three straight losses, it’s hard to say there have been any other offensive bright spots on a team that managed only 14 points to Miami (OH). But Hull is not only an extremely productive asset when compared to his anemic surroundings. The Wildcat running back leads the FBS in all-purpose yards, and he is the only player in the FBS to have over 300 yards rushing and receiving. On a team that is 111th in passing yards per completion, a running back who can catch a high volume of short passes is essential, and Hull fits that role perfectly.
Against Penn State, Hull will have to have a big game in order for Northwestern to compete. In the Nittany Lions’ closest game so far, Purdue gained a large portion of their yards through short to medium-range passes to quick receivers like Charlie Jones. While Evan Hull is obviously not a receiver, his quickness and aplomb out of the backfield will allow him to make a Charlie Jones-like contribution against Penn State. And since the Penn State secondary will likely clamp down on Malik Washington and Donny Navarro II, Hull’s importance to the passing game will only increase this week.
James Franklin not taking the Wildcats seriously
In his weekly press conference, James Franklin seemed to already be looking ahead to the future. When discussing potentially rotating in younger players this week, the ninth-year Penn State head coach said, “the more experience that we can gain and allow these guys to get, the better we are.” He later mentioned that he hopes to find more snaps for freshman quarterback Drew Allar to play this week, so long as the game is out of hand. All this talk of playing young, inexperienced players certainly gives the impression that Franklin thinks of Northwestern in the same way as Central Michigan or Ohio University, against both of which Franklin utilized Allar and a rotation of offensive linemen.
After losing three straight, one might ask themself if it’s even possible to underrate a team who has failed to put up a strong showing against weak competition. But Northwestern is still a Big Ten team, and on paper, they have enough talent and depth to at least put up a fight against most teams. Ohio State was in the same situation against Purdue in 2018 when the number two ranked Buckeyes lost to a Boilermaker team that had lost to Eastern Michigan and Missouri earlier in the season. While it’s hard to believe the Wildcats can win, the improbable has happened before.
Change of scenery
Usually, home-field advantage is, well, an advantage. But after starting 0-3 in Evanston, home-field doesn’t seem like a catalyst for success. Perhaps this is because Ryan Field is so empty, with only about half of the seats filled at the start of each game (the number dwindles significantly from halftime forward). Although Beaver Stadium isn’t friendly to the Wildcats, playing in front of 106,000 fans is sure to build some adrenaline. In Happy Valley, the Wildcat players will actually be able to hear the crowd and feed off the constant noise and excitement that just isn’t present in Evanston. And although it doesn’t mean much, the Wildcats won their only other “road” game of the season. Perhaps leaving Evanston for a college football mecca will allow Northwestern to regain what they had in Dublin.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Penn State
Penn State’s secondary
It will be quite a surprise if Northwestern can get much going from their receivers this weekend. Joey Porter Jr., the Nittany Lions’ star cornerback and projected first-round pick, is the number one man in that secondary and it shows. He leads the nation in pass breakups, and that is especially impressive considering that most opposing quarterbacks simply refuse to throw at him. Even Aiden O’Connell, Purdue’s more than solid veteran quarterback, could not get anything past Porter Jr.
Porter isn’t the only force the Nittany Lions possess in their secondary. Kalen King and Johnny Dixon are tied for thirteenth in the nation in pass breakups, and Dixon has combined his aptitude in coverage with an eye for the quarterback, having sacked the quarterback twice this season. At strong safety, Ji’Ayir Brown has six pressures while his free safety partner Keaton Ellis has excelled covering the deep ball.
So far, Ryan Hilinski has given us little to believe in since Dublin, and that’s been against weak secondaries. Unlike SIU and Miami, Penn State won’t give any room for Northwestern receivers to move. This week, Hilinski will be punished even more for bad passes.
Manny Diaz vs. Jim O’Neil
Jim O’Neil wasn’t horrible against Miami. His defense contained RedHawk quarterback Aveon Smith to only 62 yards, and the defense gave Hilinski and the offense a chance to at least take the game to overtime. But where the pass defense excelled, the front seven got gashed by Miami’s running attack. RedHawk back Keyon Mozee averaged 8.1 yards per carry, and his 66-yard run in the fourth sucked the life out of a Wildcat team who seemed to be within reach of victory after a fourth-quarter touchdown. Against Penn State, O’Neil will have to deal with a two-headed monster consisting of RBs Nicolas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. If the Wildcat defense couldn’t stop Keyon Mozee, it’s hard to imagine that a defense built to stop Singleton and Allen, even if the box is loaded like Central Michigan did against PSU. And unlike last week, the Wildcats are facing Sean Clifford at the helm, a veteran who’s more than proven he can compete against bottom-tier Big 10 competition.
On the other side, Manny Diaz has brought life into the Penn State defense. Hired from Miami (FL) during this past offseason, Diaz has already transformed the Nittany Lion unit into an aggressive, ball-seeking group, a stark contrast to Penn State defenses of the past who only seemed to stiffen in the red zone. Diaz’s unit has also answered their biggest question from the offseason, the pass rush. So far, the Nittany Lion defense ranks 19th in sacks, and former five-star Dani Denis-Sutton has been the anchor the Penn State defensive line needed coming into the season. Even if O’Neil isn’t as bad as some might think, his unit and tactics are both outmatched this week, and Penn State has the potential to put up quite a few points against the ‘Cats.
With a strong performance against Nebraska, Ryan Hilinski seemed to silence the many who doubted him in the preseason. But since then, the Week Zero magic has seemed to lessen. From missing easy checkdowns to massively overthrowing deep balls to not escaping the pocket, Hilinski has failed to repeat most of the success he enjoyed in that glorious victory. Hilinski played to the tune of a Spencer Petras-esque 17.3 QBR against FCS Southern Illinois. No one thought of Hilinski as a big play guy coming into the year, but he was at least expected to make the throws he should.
As the Wildcats move into conference play and the schedule gets harder, Hilinski won’t be able to play like he did against Miami and escape turnovers. His mistakes will be magnified, and the inability to hit open receivers will only become more of a problem, as most Big 10 defenses will allow far less space than Miami or Duke did. Frankly, Northwestern needs either a big play threat or a reliable, accurate system quarterback to win against B1G opponents. Hilinski showed he has it in him at the end of August, and he’ll have to bring it back for the ‘Cats to have any realistic shot in any of their upcoming matchups.