Coming off an exhilarating come-from-behind victory against Minnesota, the ‘Cats were at home again this weekend taking on No. 6 Penn State. Northwestern got off to an encouraging start and went into the locker room after the first half all square at 10-10. But things came crashing down in the second half. Here’s whose stock is up, and whose took a hit in the loss.
Special Teams and A.J. Henning
The game got off to a good start for the ‘Cats when sophomore special teamer Braydon Brus forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, setting up the offense with prime field position inside the red zone. Northwestern failed to capitalize for six, but kicker Jack Olsen booted a 33-yard field goal through the uprights to give Northwestern an early 3-0 lead. It was the first time Penn State trailed this season.
Henning also finally somewhat broke a return off at the tail end of the first quarter for 36 yards. He then had a 15-yard punt return early in the second. The ‘Cats needed every advantage they could find in this one, and the special teams unit had an impact early.
The ‘Cats forced a punt on Penn State’s opening drive, and held PSU to a field goal on the next drive in large part because they actually did a decent job slowing down the Lions’ two-headed monster of a running back room. Nicholas Singleton had just 23 yards on the ground on those two drives, and Kaytron Allen had only eight. Altogether, Penn State had 67 rush yards in the first half on 3.7 yards per carry.
For all the criticism this Northwestern defensive line has faced thus far, it was an encouraging start for that unit. Early in the second half, the line also held up on a goal line stand until fourth down, when it finally caved on a sneak. Things devolved from there, but in this case, a moral victory is reasonable. The Northwestern run defense, which has previously looked only abysmal, played a good half of football and a decent game overall against one of the best rushing attacks in the nation.
Johnson was the ‘Cats’ leading receiver in this one, and he got started early. The Arizona State transfer had three catches for 50 yards just in the first half. His 22-yard reception in enemy territory set the ‘Cats up for an eventual touchdown in the second quarter to give them a 10-3 lead.
Johnson was a factor in the offense even as things started to go awry in the second half, catching a couple more passes and contributing the Northwestern’s minimal ball movement. He finished with five receptions on eight targets for 74 yards. Johnson is emerging as NU’s most consistent receiver, and it was nice to see him put up real stats against a defense as good as Penn State’s.
Honorable mentions: Garnett Hollis Jr., Xander Mueller, the TV timeout field goal kicking game winner
Offensive line play
Ben Bryant was on his butt a lot in this one, as Penn State’s vaunted defensive line had its way with Northwestern’s offensive front. The Nittany Lions had four sacks just in the first half, one of which seemingly resulted in a leg injury for Bryant. He was twisted down awkwardly after a missed block from Josh Priebe, but stayed in the game in some discomfort. The NU QB went down again early in the fourth quarter after a sack, Penn State’s fifth of the afternoon.
The big guys up front didn’t support the run game well either. Cam Porter was only able to muster 18 yards on the ground, and Northwestern had 45 rush yards as a team. It’s hard to blame the runners for that stat line given the lack of running lanes and Northwestern’s inability to win at the line of scrimmage. The ‘Cats couldn’t even convert a quarterback sneak behind this offensive line.
The Bryant to Bryce Kirtz connection
After an electrifying performance in the second half last week, Bryant came back down to earth against a dominant Penn State defense. Before his injury, Bryant was 14-25 for 122 yards and no scores. Kirtz also saw a major dip in production after his 215-yard performance against Minnesota. He caught just three passes for 12 yards and wasn’t particularly noticeable.
Defensively, Minnesota and Penn State are two very different matchups, and expectations were too high after just one game of elite throwing and catching. Nevertheless, the two were not as effective as last weekend, and this isn’t necessarily a connection ‘Cats fans can feel confident about week in and week out.
Staying ahead of the chains
Northwestern faced a lot of third-and-longs in this one for a variety of reasons. Sacks hurt. Penalties hurt. Weird play calling hurt. But whatever the issues were, Northwestern was inexcusably behind the chains all day. It’s hard to establish offensive rhythm when you constantly have to drive the ball a long way to move the sticks. Struggling to move the ball on Penn State is understandable, but the ‘Cats’ performance on early downs didn’t give them much of a chance. They need to generate more third and manageable’s as the season continues, or the offense will continue to stall.
Honorable mentions: Fourth down decisions, A.J. Henning as a receiver, Cam Porter, Ben Bryant, Hunter Renner