Northwestern has had quite the weekend in football. Not because it won — the Wildcats lost by four possessions — but because NU managed to hold off a team competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Northwestern forced Penn State’s first turnover of the season, even taking the lead against the Nittany Lions for about 14 minutes of the first half (becoming the first team to do so this season).
Despite the final score, this team showed some serious potential Saturday morning: here’s what we learned.
Northwestern has to capitalize on potential opportunities
The first play of the entire game was a turnover by Penn State to put the Wildcats on their 11-yard line, giving them a miracle and a chance for a touchdown. What does Northwestern do instead? Go three-and-out with a net loss of four yards on the drive. It’s times like these that make me cringe while watching this team. However, there’s some definite plausibility for future success, and it showed. Northwestern kept up with Drew Allar’s offense for around 36 minutes of playing time.
While there were bright spots, until NU consistently plays like it did in the first half, the Wildcats are going to have to execute on great field position.
Brendan Sullivan isn’t quite ready to start
What we saw from Sullivan this weekend wasn’t all bad; he managed to rush seven times for 25 yards and displayed great mobility whenever the pocket collapsed. More concerning, however, was that he ran for more yards than he passed for. Sullivan completed two-of-six passes for only eight yards, and in that short amount of time, the junior managed to throw an absolute dime. Unfortunately, it was right into the awaiting arms of the defense.
The interception was a sloppy pass, completely avoidable, and exemplifies why Sullivan needs more time before he can be a viable starter. He seems to either go with his first read or immediately take off with the ball. Though his mobility can be absolutely deadly, he needs to work on his ability to scan the field and adjust to what is happening in real time. Until he can do that, Ben Bryant has to be the quarterback the ‘Cats rely on.
Ben Bryant: Let him cook
Ben Bryant showed us this weekend that he has the ability to develop into a strong starting quarterback. Yes, some passes were overthrown. Yes, he isn’t as keen to run as Sullivan, but this weekend we saw that Bryant is capable of that mobility. He may have rushed for negative yardage overall (sack-adjusted), but what I saw was a quarterback thinking in the moment and adjusting the way he needed to. My Ben Bryant conclusion? He can be mobile. He can think on the spot. He can make passes into tight coverage. If the offensive line can give him more time in the pocket, I think we can see some great things at quarterback later this season.
David Braun shouldn’t be “interim”
This team went toe-to-toe with one of the top teams in the nation, and for 30 minutes, the ‘Cats were the better squad. Managing to hold the No. 6 Nittany Lions to just 10 points during the first two quarters was not an easy feat — only Iowa has managed to do the same.
The fact that David Braun scored a touchdown Saturday when Kirk Ferentz’s formerly top-25 team couldn’t even make a field goal is enough to tell me that Braun deserves to stay as head coach. His defense played some of its best football all season, and clearly, he’s done enough in the locker room to motivate this team. I really love the direction that this team is heading in, and Braun’s coaching is a big part of it.
Consistency/Inconsistency: Northwestern needs more of both
Northwestern needs more variation in play calling.
For a team that finished the day with more runs than passes, Northwestern only amassed 45 rushing yards, with a grand total of negative-10 in the first half. The classic Northwestern gameplan of pounding the rock is not working.
One of my favorite calls? The fake punt. Although it ended up a yard short, that third quarter play was exactly the kind of variation I’m looking for.
Northwestern lacks consistency in the places there should be. I see it in the offense, where the team will look amazing during one drive and immensely lacking on the next, but I think the special teams are overlooked.
I’ve loved the way that A.J. Henning has been able to break through and make plays on the receiving end, but I’d love to see more consistency from Hunter Renner on the punting side of things. More consistency from Renner would’ve made a difference in the level of advantage Penn State was able to garner, with his shortest punt being just 22 yards and putting the Nittany Lions on the Northwestern 40-yard line. Penn State eventually sealed the deal with a touchdown. Though punting may seem minute when there is an offense and defense to worry about, what seems like a little thing could make all the difference.