Opponent Preview: Penn State

Northwestern will take on Penn State football in the 2020 season.

By Kevin Sweeney

At this point, it’s unclear when exactly Northwestern will play Penn State. The Big Ten moved to a conference-only schedule Thursday, and the complete effects of that decision are still unknown. What we do know is that whenever football does get played, Northwestern will eventually play Penn State. That game will be in Happy Valley, and it’s likely to be Northwestern’s toughest game of the season no matter how many fans the game is played in front of.

Despite losing star QB Trace McSorley and RB Miles Sanders from 2018, the Nittany Lions had a terrific season a year ago, riding an offense that was among the nation’s most dynamic to an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl victory. With the nucleus of that team returning, PSU has a real chance to challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten East and contend for a College Football Playoff berth.

The talent on the offensive side of the ball is beyond impressive. Many wondered how Sean Clifford would take to starting QB duties in the post-McSorley era in State College, but he lived up to the hype and more. His decision-making and toughness were impressive for a first-year starter, and his ability to tuck it and run made the PSU offense all the more dynamic. Clifford’s accuracy was perhaps his biggest struggle in his first season as the full-time starter. In his team’s four “easiest” games of the year (Buffalo, Idaho, and sub-.500 Big Ten foes Purdue and Maryland), Clifford threw for over 250 yards in each game and completed over 72% of his passes. In Clifford’s eight other games, he eclipsed that 250 yard total just once and posted just a 53% completion percentage. More consistency as a passer against strong competition will be critical, especially against a defense like Northwestern’s.

Clifford is fortunate to share a backfield with one of the conference’s most dynamic playmakers in Journey Brown. Brown shined down the stretch, posting four 100+ yard performances in the season’s final five games, including a 202-yard outburst against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. In those five games, Brown scored 9 touchdowns. He’s a fantastic back who’ll pair with the likes of Noah Cain and Ricky Slade to create a very dangerous rushing attack.

Where new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has the most work to do is with a wide receiver unit that loses superstar pass-catcher KJ Hamler, who’ll suit up on Sundays for the Denver Broncos. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is Clifford’s leading returning target, and his steady hands will be valued given the question marks at the WR position. Less time on campus during the spring to build chemistry could be a challenge for a QB with a new WR group and new offensive coordinator to get on the same page, so getting Penn State early in the season as currently scheduled could play in Northwestern’s favor.

Penn State does bring a lot back defensively as well — though the loss of sacks leader Yetur Gross-Matos will be a challenge. The Nittany Lions recruit at a high level, though, and remain incredibly deep along the defensive line, while bringing back a star in linebacker Micah Parsons at linebacker. Their secondary could be exploited given the losses of a pair of starters in Garrett Taylor and John Reid, but given Northwestern’s wide receiving corps aren’t the team’s most talented position, we’ll see if the ‘Cats can find the edge.

The Bottom Line:

Penn State is a very good team with the potential to knock off virtually anyone. That, combined with how difficult it is to win in Happy Valley, makes it hard to see Northwestern finding a way to win this one. The best chance for NU lies in keeping the score down, putting game pressure on the Nittany Lions, and seeing where the chips fall in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Penn State 27, Northwestern 10