After a thrilling comeback win over Minnesota, Northwestern faces its toughest opponent of the season: No. 6 Penn State. Many of the same faces from NU’s 17-7 loss in Happy Valley last year are back and better. They’ve helped lead the Nittany Lions to a 4-0 start, in which James Franklin hasn’t secured a win by a margin tighter than 17 points. Inside NU spoke with Black Shoe Diaries writer (and Northwestern alum!) Brian Bennett to learn a little more about PSU heading into Saturday:
INU: Based on the first four weeks, it’s pretty clear that the PSU defense is phenomenal. What weaknesses, if any, does it have?
Brian Bennett: Back in July, I was asked to write a piece outlining what could be weaknesses in Penn State’s defense. To be honest, it was a tough assignment. The biggest question was that Penn State had issues last year against the run — mostly in the loss to Michigan, but also with dual-threat quarterbacks. Well, Penn State is third in the conference right now against the run, barely behind Michigan and set to move up when Nebraska stops playing pass-heavy teams. So, I think through four games it’s turned that weakness into a strength.
The Lions are extremely aggressive on defense and sometimes that leads to them over running plays. We saw that happen a bit in the opener against West Virginia and also early against Illinois. Using some misdirection to slow them down even worked on the few successful plays that Iowa’s offense had last Saturday.
INU: Drew Allar’s looked great thus far — what’s been the primary reason behind that and do you think it holds up as the schedule gets tougher?
BB: Well, he’s a talented and composed young player who is being protected. The offensive line has been outstanding in pass blocking and Allar has stayed within himself and taken what the defense has given. Last Saturday was the perfect example. His stats won’t wow you in terms of yardage, but he did pass for four touchdowns and just seemed fully in control the whole night.
The stat that is going to get the most play on Saturday is the fact that through 15 appearances and four starts, he has not committed a single turnover. I don’t think it’s realistic for that to hold up through Big Ten play, especially since he easily could have had two interceptions in the opener against West Virginia. Penn State will need him to push the ball downfield more often and make tougher throws to reach its stated goal of a Big Ten title.
INU: What’s the general expectation around State College right now? Is there a CFP-or-bust feeling?
BB: Absolutely. A quick history lesson. Penn State won the Big Ten in 2016, but finished fifth in the final College Football Playoff rankings and missed out on a spot in the semifinals. Many fans believed that Penn State would break through soon especially since they’d beaten Ohio State in that conference title year. But, they haven’t topped the Buckeyes since and Ohio State has been a regular in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Michigan and Penn State had been alternating second-place East finishes until 2021. The Wolverines scored a late touchdown to top Penn State and they haven’t dropped a conference game since.
Before last season, any Penn State fan would have signed up for a Rose Bowl win and a spot in the Top 10 to close out the year. The Lions got that, but some fans felt that was even hollow since their two losses were to playoff participants Michigan and Ohio State. Maybe it’s not a full blown CFP-or-bust attitude, but a beat at least one of those this year mindset.
INU: Is there anything about Northwestern that worries the fanbase — even if it’s something as simple as the fear of Saturday being a trap game?
Sure. I think there will be a natural let down from playing its biggest spectacle game of the year — the Whiteout — and following that up with a trip to Evanston to play at 11 a.m. local time in front of a quarter of the crowd. Penn State also has its off week after this game, so pressure is on James Franklin to not let his crew look ahead to that. Last year, Penn State played Northwestern in a similar spot. Weather had a major impact, but the Lions turned the ball over a ton in what was a total clunker of the game.
Look, Northwestern has a pulse too. I think it’s fair to say that it’s already exceeded expectations and things have to be feeling good after the big mess of July. I watched the Rutgers game and caught portions of last weekend’s Minnesota game, including the final tying touchdown drive and overtime. The Wildcats looked remarkably improved.
INU: Give us a score prediction — who wins and why (or more specifically, will Penn State cover and why)?
BB: Before I do that, I feel compelled to mention my love for Northwestern University. After all, I am a 2006 graduate - Masters in Journalism. Woo Medill. I must also note that Talor Battle is my favorite Penn State basketball player ever. So, I hope for another fine season for Talor, Boo Buie and Brooks Barnhizer — who I coached against when he was in high school.
I realize that I’ve actually picked Penn State NOT to cover every game this season and they have, in fact, covered. So, inevitably, I’m going to look silly when the Wildcats beat the spread. Here’s word-for-word my prediction from our site:
In 2017, Penn State was unbeaten and headed to Evanston for an 11 a.m. local start ahead of its bye week. The Lions overwhelmed the Wildcats, leading 10-0 at the half and 24-0 at the end of three quarters. By the end, Penn State had its backups on the field for a painless 31-7 win. It’s the exact kind of win that Penn State has patented thus far in 2023. I’m a believer in history and I think it’s a similar Saturday for the Lions this weekend. I think the Wildcats put up more yards than Iowa did (how can’t you?) and they’ll spread the ball around and get it out quickly much the same way that West Virginia and Illinois tried to do earlier this year. But, Penn State also adjusts and comes away with a turnover or two from quarterback Ben Bryant. I’m also calling my shot that Penn State comes away with at least one 50+ yard touchdown run against a defense that has given up some big plays.
Penn State 38, Northwestern 10