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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: What to Watch For: Northwestern welcomes strong foe in No. 6 Penn State

Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer
Northwestern junior offensive lineman Caleb Tiernan and graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant. Bryant threw for 396 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats’ win against Minnesota last Saturday.

When graduate student tight end Charlie Mangieri waltzed into the end zone on Saturday night, he capped off a night to remember for Northwestern. The Wildcats completed their three-touchdown  comeback to stamp a 37-34 win against Minnesota, their first Big Ten victory at home since October 2021.

Now, riding high off its most recent triumph, NU (2-2, 1-1 Big Ten) welcomes No. 6 Penn State for a showdown at Ryan Field.

The Nittany Lions (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) come to Evanston following a 31-0 trouncing of then-No. 24 Iowa. As its offense — led by quarterback Drew Allar and a dynamic rushing duo of Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton continues to establish itself — Penn State’s defense leads the charge as one of the most formidable units in the country. 

Here are three storylines to read before NU’s clash with the Nittany Lions this weekend: 

1. ‘Cats offense looking to carry momentum from Minnesota win

Penn State enters Ryan Field this weekend boasting one of the stingiest defenses in the country.

The Nittany Lions’ passing defense is the top unit in the country, allowing a mere 138 yards through the air, per contest through four games. Penn State has also surrendered just 81.5 rushing yards per game to opponents this season, ranking 13th nationally. 

During the second half and overtime against Minnesota, NU’s offense flipped on a dime. Graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant put up his best performance to date in the purple and white, throwing for 269 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with 396 passing yards and four touchdowns.

“Even though the second half involved a very explosive passing game, the fact that we were able to move the line of scrimmage and establish the run game early played a factor,” interim head coach David Braun said. “The protection out of the offensive line was a huge factor.”

Put simply, the ‘Cats put up their best offensive display of the 2023 season. 

It will be hard to replicate the same kind of scoring surge against the Nittany Lions, especially if NU falls behind early — a tale written every game. 

Ultimately, the play of the offensive line — which is coming off its best game of pass protection on the season — will be paramount as it looks to stymie a formidable Penn State front. 

2. A critical turnover battle 

In its opening four contests, no team has been able to force the Nittany Lions into coughing up the football. 

Allar and the Penn State offense have an unblemished resume at the moment, but can the ‘Cats be the first team to force the Nittany Lions into a turnover?

Last year’s torrential downpour in State College played a tremendous role in the unsightly offensive display, notably assisting NU in forcing five turnovers. While the weather conditions on Saturday will be mild, the ‘Cats will likely need to produce a similar level of chaos.

Conversely, Bryant and the NU offense will need to protect the football. It may be easier said than done, but the ‘Cats can ill afford another instance where a turnover deep in their own territory sparks a scoring run from their opponent –– like last Saturday against the Golden Gophers. 

Win the turnover battle, odds are you win the game. It’s one of football’s oldest adages, but will likely ring true when NU takes the field this weekend.

3. Penn State not intimidated by Ryan Field atmosphere

NFL Hall of Famer and Colorado coach Deion Sanders has taken center stage around field noise at practice. Before the Buffaloes match up against then-No. 10 Oregon, Sanders blasted music at practice to prepare his players for the upcoming atmosphere.  

But when asked about whether the Nittany Lions were practicing with any music to prepare for Saturday’s contest, coach James Franklin’s response was blunt.

“They were asking me to turn it up today and I said, ‘No,’” Franklin told a pool of reporters Wednesday. 

Most NU students filtered out of the student section by the time the ‘Cats commenced their 21-point fourth quarter comeback. So, when Mangieri capped off NU’s revival in overtime, the ensuing field storm from the ‘Cats faithful was anything but large. 

Inspired, sure. Massive in size, no. 

Still, on the first game day with students back on campus, the NU student section was packed to the brim in the first quarter. And with the new points-based ticket claim system incentivizing attendance at all sporting events, one could expect similar devotion on Saturday, especially coming off a victory. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @CervantesPAlex 

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