October opens with a key Big Ten crossover contest as the Northwestern Wildcats take on the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Wildcats (1-3, 1-0) have lost three in a row but have a chance to turn things around with a return to conference play. It won't be easy, however, on the road against the undefeated (4-0, 1-0) Nittany Lions.
Besides losing its last three games, the most recent at home against the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks from the MAC, Northwestern has struggled in its head-to-head series with Penn State. The Nittany Lions hold a 14-5 overall lead, although the Wildcats did win on their last trip to Beaver Stadium, defeating Penn State 29-6 in 2014.
Northwestern at No. 11 Penn State
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Although it's been an improvement compared to last season, the Wildcats are still struggling to find consistency on offense. They rank third in the Big Ten in passing offense (304.8 ypg) as Ryan Hillinski has provided stability to the quarterback position, but despite all the completions (114, first in conference) and yards (1,219, second), he has just five touchdown passes with three interceptions through four games.
That underscores Northwestern's biggest issue on offense, scoring. Pat Fitzgerald's team is second to last in the Big Ten with 23 points per game. That's better than last year's average (16.6 ppg), but the Wildcats haven't scored more than 24 points in each of its last three games, losses to Duke, FCS Southern Illinois, and Miami (Ohio). Turnovers have certainly been a problem as they have posted a minus-seven differential during this three-game losing streak.
Running back Evan Hull has been doing this part, as he leads the Big Ten in yards from scrimmage with 370 rushing and 311 receiving. He's also accounted for a third of the team's 12 total touchdowns. Wide receiver Malik Washington (27 rec., 305 yds., TD) has been the other major contributor, which also highlights Northwestern's issue on this side of the ball.
And it's probably not going to get easier against a Penn State defense that has done a good job of limiting the damage on the scoreboard (16.8 ppg) and against the run (92.0 ypg). The Nittany Lions have been susceptible to the pass (275.0 ypg) but have recorded as many interceptions as touchdown passes allowed (four each). The secondary also boasts a pair of NFL prospects in cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (nine pass breakups) and safety Ji'Ayir Brown (team-high 19 tackles, INT).
Penn State also will look to make its presence felt with a pass rush that's generated 11 sacks through four games, led by Dani Dennis-Sutton's three. The Wildcats have only surrendered five sacks to this point, which is respectable considering Hilinski has attempted the second-most passes (185) among Big Ten quarterbacks.
When Penn State Has the Ball
Quarterback Sean Clifford is off to a solid start. A super senior who is one of the most experienced signal-callers in the nation, Clifford's numbers may not be as prolific compared to his peers, but he's doing what is needed to help his team win. He's completing 64 percent of his pass attempts with eight touchdowns and just one interception. He also has scored four times with his legs.
Clifford has done a good spreading the ball around with wide receivers Mitchell Tinsley (17 rec., 209 yds., 3 TDs) and Parker Washington (16, 212) as well as tight end Brenton Strange (14, 211, 3) serving as his primary targets.
But the difference this year for the Nittany Lions' offense has been the running game. After finishing second to last in the Big Ten in rushing offense last season (108 ypg), Penn State is averaging 186 yards per game thus far and has already matched its rushing touchdown total (11) from 2021. And it's a pair of true freshmen running backs — Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen — who are doing most of the damage. Each is averaging better than six yards per carry and has gone over 100 rushing yards in a game at least once (Singleton has two), and both have been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week already.
Look for the Nittany Lions to continue to stay grounded against a Northwestern defense that has given up more than 200 rushing yards on two separate occasions this season. The Wildcats have fared a little better against the pass (229.5 ypg, 6 TDs, 4 INTs), but that's somewhat due to the teams they have played and opponents not needing to throw because they were able to run the ball effectively.
Linebacker Bryce Gallagher (38 tackles) has been all over the field for Northwestern's D, while linemen Ryan Johnson and Adetomiwa Adebawore (2 sacks each) have anchored the pass rush. This unit has generated five takeaways, four of them being interceptions.
Penn State has dominated its series with Northwestern, and there's not much reason to expect anything to change on Saturday. The Wildcats are struggling on both sides of the ball, while the Nittany Lions have shown good balance. Even if the defense struggles a bit, Penn State has too many weapons for Northwestern to overcome.
Prediction: Penn State 30, Northwestern 17
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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
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