A .500 record at 1-1 was always attainable for the ‘Cats this season. But a .500 record at 2-2? I don’t think a lot of us saw that coming, and it’s worth celebrating Northwestern’s miraculous comeback against Minnesota on Saturday. After trailing 24-7 at the half, Ben Bryant and the ‘Cats came storming back to eventually down the Gophers 37-34 in overtime.
Now, NU shifts its focus to perhaps the most daunting opponent on its entire schedule, the No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions. Penn State is 4-0 so far this season, and none of its games have been particularly close. The Nittany Lions are coming off a 31-0 beat-down of Iowa, a team that was ranked in the top 25 going into the matchup.
Suffice to say, this is going to be an extremely tough game for Northwestern to win, and it may even be unrealistic to consider avenues to victory. With that being said, here are three important matchups to watch on Saturday as the ‘Cats try to achieve the impossible. (Hey, nobody thought Northwestern basketball could take down Purdue last year either. Just saying.)
Penn State running game vs Northwestern rushing defense
This is one area where Northwestern will be extremely overmatched. Much has been made, and rightfully so, of the ‘Cats’ run defense being poor. Between shoddy tackling and an inability to win at the line of scrimmage, Northwestern gives up a lot of yards on the ground. Even in the win last week, Northwestern allowed 244 rushing yards. Gopher running back Darius Taylor had 198 yards by himself.
Obviously, this doesn’t bode well, and Penn State has an even more potent rushing attack than Minnesota does. While the Wildcat rush defense is dead last in the Big Ten, allowing 184.5 yards per contest, Penn State ranks second in the conference in yards gained on the ground per game.
Northwestern will not be able to stop the run on Saturday. I’m comfortable making the prediction that there’s essentially no chance Northwestern completely neutralizes Penn State’s deep running back room which includes Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton. But if the ‘Cats could just find a way to minimize it in some way, to keep it from being the most noticeable mismatch of the season, that would be a win here. However, if Penn State runs all over the ‘Cats, it’s going to be a long day and a tough watch.
Ben Bryant vs Penn State’s secondary
The Ben Bryant breakout game finally happened (we hope) against Minnesota. The Cincinnati transfer struggled out of the gate this season, looking overmatched and uncomfortable with his receiving targets. But he flipped the switch in the second half on Saturday, finishing with a stat line of 396 yards passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Bryant also finally showed some rapport with at least one of his receivers, connecting with Bryce Kirtz 10 times, resulting in a 215-yard game for the wideout and a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week designation. It was a really encouraging game for Northwestern’s signal caller, one he hopefully can build on.
Again, though, Penn State isn’t the ideal follow-up. The Nittany Lions have the best pass defense in the Big Ten. Not only do they give up an average of just 138 yards through the air per game, but they also have five picks on the season, something Bryant was certainly susceptible to prior to last week. Corner and first-round talent Kalen King anchors their coverage and will be a really tough matchup for Northwestern receivers (more on that in a second), and it’ll be up to Bryant to find other ways to move the ball.
Kirtz vs regression to the mean
There’s no doubt that Bryce Kirtz had an exceptional, potentially career-altering day against Minnesota. Whether or not it means he’ll be a dominant receiving threat throughout the season remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the possibility remains that this was just a one-off. Obviously, David Braun and co. are hoping it wasn’t, but it would be foolish to discount the possibility.
Even if Kirtz’s performance was a sign of what’s to come, expect some regression this week against Penn State. King and the rest of the secondary are too talented to let Kirtz dominate the way he did against the Gophers.
An encouraging sign would be if Kirtz is at least Northwestern’s most consistent option in this game. The contest will likely feature choppy drives, three and out’s and long defensive possessions, but if Kirtz appears on the stat sheet in a meaningful way, that’s a win going forward.