1. Northwestern played like it had nothing to lose
After losing its first two games as favorites, Northwestern was going to have to pull some upsets along the path to six wins and bowl eligibility. The Wildcats got the trek back to respectability started in a big way Saturday, keeping Penn State at arm’s length and pulling away late for a 29-6 win that wasn’t even really that close. The biggest change? Aggressiveness. Practically from start to finish, the 10-point underdogs played like they had nothing to lose, taking the game to the Nittany Lions (a maddening punt after taking a delay of game on 4th-and-7 obviously excepted). Exploiting the advantage that his front seven had over Penn State’s overwhelmed offensive line, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz brought four or five pass rushers on nearly every play, keeping lauded Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg under pressure and out of sync with his receivers for most of the day. On offense, senior quarterback Trevor Siemian mostly shook off recent criticism of his tendency to check down, finding junior superback Dan Vitale repeatedly on throws down the middle.
Even when the risks the Cats took didn’t work (the fake field goal in the first half) or when they lost discipline (multiple personal foul penalties on punts), the risks helped set the tone that NU wasn’t overwhelmed by playing in a tough environment against an undefeated team. And when the heat was turned up in the fourth quarter, Penn State was the team that folded, turning the ball over on two consecutive plays and mostly looking disinterested in mounting any sort of comeback. It was an impressive performance nearly top-to-bottom from a team — and a program — that desperately needed one.
2. This defense is good enough to keep NU in every game
It’s safe to say it won’t be this easy every week. Other Big Ten teams have bigger, healthier, better offensive lines and more multidimensional offenses. Getting behind early probably took away pieces of Penn State’s game plan and the prospect of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon running over, around and through NU next Saturday will still keep Hankwitz up at night all week. But the way they played on Saturday, the Cats will at least have a shot.
Missing two starters for much of the game and a third once cornerback Matthew Harris left in the third quarter, NU never missed a beat, swarming Hackenberg, making big hits and forcing timely turnovers. Even as the offense was sputtering after a fast start and the special teams was giving up some short fields, the defense barely bent and never broke, keeping a Big Ten opponent entirely out of the end zone for the first time in two decades. In a conference that is hardly known for its high-flying offenses, that should be enough for the Cats to have a chance to win every Saturday.
3. The “Cardiac ‘Cats” were nowhere to be found
As NU kept missing opportunities in the second and third quarters and 14-0 became 14-3 became 14-6, you could feel NU fans tightening up, waiting for the moment when the script flipped. And then … the other shoe never dropped. Anthony Walker intercepted Hackenberg and brought it back for a touchdown, and then Xavier Washington blew him up on a strip sack, and then Greg Kuhar stuffed a fourth down, and then NU was bleeding out the clock. Even in NU’s best years, the Cats rarely blow teams out, especially on the road like this. In 2012, lost fourth-quarter leads against Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan kept a great season from reaching even higher heights. It was encouraging to see the players and coaches maintaining aggressive, positive play for all 60 minutes, not just the first 30.
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