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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat No. 6 Penn State

Is Ryan Field primed for another magical moment?

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Coming off a wild 21-point comeback victory over Minnesota, Northwestern’s biggest challenge of the season is headed to Evanston — No. 6 Penn State. Leading the all time series 15-5 against the ‘Cats, the Nittany Lions come to Ryan Field hot off the heels of a 31-0 win over Iowa last weekend. Facing a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, David Braun’s Northwestern squad will be amped for the opportunity to play the role of underdogs. Here’s why Northwestern will shock college football Saturday, and why it’ll be the next victim of Penn State’s perfect start to the season.

Why Northwestern will beat Penn State

The Bryant to Kirtz connection

Ben Bryant’s numbers against Minnesota: 33-of-49, 396 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes. Bryce Kirtz’s numbers against Minnesota: 10 catches, 215 yards and his first two career touchdowns.

Whenever Northwestern needed an answer against the Gophers, Bryant dropped back and threw a strike to Kirtz. Down 21 in the final minutes of the first half last weekend — how’s an 80-yard link-up for a score? Trailing by 14 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter — how’s a three-play, 69-yard touchdown drive where every throw went Kirtz’s way?

Although Kirtz missed the opener against Rutgers, since making his way back into the lineup, Bryant and Kirtz have looked in sync, connecting for 17 catches, two touchdowns and 274 yards of offense. The timing and chemistry between the pair has been on display, ultimately culminating in Bryant fueling Kirtz’s big night against the Gophers.

Moving forward, Kirtz’s historic performance allows Bryant to fling the ball over to A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson, arguably better pass catchers with defenses needing to take Kirtz into account. With the way Bryant slung the ball in the second half to orchestrate the comeback, this offense has the firepower to put points on the board. Bryant and Kirtz’s breakout performance has Northwestern’s offense feeling confident and dangerous headed toward its toughest test of the season.

The belief in David Braun

Northwestern’s first head coach to win its first two home games since Dick Hanley in 1927 has the locker room on his side.

“For the first time since I’ve been here you, looked in their eyes, you looked at their body language — they weren’t flinching. ‘Coach we got this,’” David Braun said about his team’s resilience in the postgame press conference after beating Minnesota.

“There was belief. They expected victory,” Braun added.

Trailing by 21, faith in Braun and Northwestern’s coaching staff is all the ‘Cats had left. And they came roaring back thanks to their preparation and trust in Braun’s system.

“People want to go to war and fight for that guy,” defensive back Coco Azema said, referencing Braun in the postgame press conference after a 10-tackle performance against the Gophers.

Against a powerhouse like Penn State, Northwestern is going to need to believe. It’s going to need to stick through Penn State’s punches and trust the coaching staff makes the right calls to keep the ‘Cats hanging around. A belief in David Braun’s program has already gifted two wins at Ryan Field — could we see another?

Big Ten football at its finest

A large part of the ‘Cats staying competitive against No. 7 Penn State and No. 4 Ohio State last season were thanks to slushy, windy and stormy conditions. Unfortunately for Northwestern, severe weather isn’t on the forecast for Saturday’s matchup in Evanston, but that doesn’t stop a Big Ten matchup from dismantling in the most Big Ten way possible.

Chaos is the number one trick up Northwestern’s sleeve. Northwestern’s got the disadvantage talent-wise; any way it can steal an extra possession or force and capitalize off a turnover is imperative. In the second quarter of Week One, the ‘Cats opted for a fake punt against Rutgers, ultimately failing as Rod Heard’s route came up short of the marker. And last week against Minnesota, the ‘Cats ran a play that saw a Jack Lausch lateral to Bryant, who tossed it back over to Lausch for a minimal gain.

The ‘Cats need to embrace trickery if they want to fool the Nittany Lions. Lausch, Henning, Hunter Renner fake punts, pick your poison. At the same time, they need to take care of the ball, playing smart football but embracing chaos — something easier said than done. The best thing about the Big Ten is anything can happen, and with a little luck on its side, maybe Northwestern can pull out a monumental upset.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Penn State

Penn State’s ferocious ground game

Penn State’s rushing attack ranks second in the conference, averaging 210.0 yards per game, thanks to the one-two punch of Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton, who became the first freshmen teammates in Big Ten history last year to both rush for 700+ yards in a season.

Allen already has 280 rushing yards and two touchdowns through four games. Coming off a 21-carry, 72-yard performance against the Hawkeyes, the sophomore from Virginia has a lethal mix of vision and speed, making him a danger every time he touches the football. Singleton, who has 203 rushing yards and five touchdowns this season, is an end zone magnet. Effective in the red zone, the sophomore burned Northwestern for 87 rushing yards and a touchdown last year.

In the last two games, Northwestern has given up 512 rushing yards alone and ranks last in the Big Ten, surrendering 184.5 yards on the ground per game. If the ‘Cats are unable to clean up their run defense, expect the Nittany Lions to breeze past Northwestern.

Drew Allar

One of two FBS quarterbacks (Washington State’s Cameron Ward) with 125+ pass attempts and no interceptions this season, Drew Allar has established himself in the Big Ten’s elite tier of quarterbacks. The sophomore signal-caller has thrown for 903 yards and eight touchdowns, adding another 74 yards and a score with his legs to start the campaign.

At 6-foot-5, Allar’s skill comes from his athleticism. He’s incredibly mobile, moving away from pressure with good speed and accuracy on the run. From the pocket, he’s got excellent chemistry with his receivers, especially KeAndre Lambert-Smith, a strong arm and great anticipation, too. The total package, Allar effortlessly threw four touchdowns against one of the conference’s better defenses in Iowa. Think about what the star sophomore is about to do against the ‘Cats, especially with Northwestern’s struggles to pressure the pocket.

A ferocious defense loaded with talent

Through four games, Penn State sits atop the country in total defense (219.5 yards per game), pass defense (138.0 yards per game), first downs allowed (46) and turnover margin (+11). The Nittany Lions are coming off a shutout victory over Iowa, where they held the Hawkeyes to 76 total yards — the country’s fewest allowed against a Power Five opponent this season.

Brimming with talented playmakers like corner Kalen King and defensive end Chop Robinson — two stars expected to make their way into the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft — Penn State’s defense has the ability to dictate a game. Look out for No. 11 Abdul Carter, too. Wearing the number of former Penn State greats like NaVorro Bowman and Micah Parsons, the sophomore linebacker’s tenacious pursuit of the football, burst, instincts and heavy hitting make him an under-the-radar game changer for the Nittany Lions after a slow start to the season. Expect Penn State’s physicality in all three levels of its defense to cause problems for the ‘Cats on Saturday.