Football Preview: Northwestern vs. Penn State

By Kendall Wright

After pulling off an upset for the ages in overtime last week against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 1-1 B1G) stay at Ryan Field to play the No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions (4-0, 2-0 B1G) to close out the month of September.

Penn State enters this matchup coming off a shutout victory against Iowa, 31-0. The Nittany Lions have scored at least 30 points in each of their first four games, averaging 40.5 points per game. Though their offense has been lethal, their defense cannot go unnoticed, having allowed just 35 total points this season so far. This is in large part due to CB Kalen King and DE Chop Robinson. This will be by far Northwestern’s toughest game. 

One important thing that the ‘Cats’ should be focused on is to not be rattled so early, such as when the Nittany Lions score on an unbelievable play. Penn State has produced an offense that is averaging roughly 240 passing yards per game and 210 rushing yards per game. That combination of productivity in the air and on the ground is something to take into consideration. 

Given that Penn State has been practically equally productive in terms of passing and rushing, it’s hard to pinpoint which area the Wildcats should attack. The Wildcats’ best game plan is to force Penn State QB Drew Allar to hand the ball off to his running backs so that the Northwestern cornerbacks aren’t getting beat deep. So far this season, Penn State has scored the same amount of passing touchdowns as rushing touchdowns – 10. Though OT Olu Fashanu poses a huge threat since he’s projected to be a first-round draft pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, Northwestern can’t pressure the offensive line too much or Allar will pick apart the defense, and find the holes for his receivers. 

On offense, Northwestern must channel those instincts they had in the fourth quarter last week where Bryant led them to scoring three touchdowns. Ball security becomes crucial here as the Nittany Lions will most likely capitalize on any turnovers the Wildcats commit this weekend. It should be noted too that the Nittany Lions have two players who lead the Big Ten in fumbles forced and fumbles recovered. 

The ‘Cats will need Bryant to play as clean of a game as he did last week. Additionally, developing routes for the Wildcats’ wide receivers is pivotal as Penn State’s corners have been playing great coverage all season. Performances from players like wide receiver Bryce Kirtz, who tallied over 200 receiving yards and brought in two touchdowns, are ones that would be great if replicated to go head-to-head with Penn State’s high-powered offense. 

Another stat that Northwestern should pay attention to is Penn State’s fourth-down conversion rate where they convert at approximately 89%. Northwestern must be mindful of this PSU team that isn’t afraid to use all four downs. 

Northwestern’s win over Minnesota is something students and fans will remember forever, especially because Minnesota was favored by double digits and Northwestern trailed by 21 points heading into the fourth quarter. With the emotions at an all-time high last week, it’s time to be humble and grounded when about to play a team that has steamrolled everyone on their schedule thus far. 

Ryan Choe and Lawrence Price have the call for WNUR Sports with kickoff set for 11:00 a.m. CST on Saturday, September 30.