Know Your Penn State Football Enemy: Northwestern Wildcats


On November 7th, Penn State will travel to Evanston, Illinois, looking to avenge last season’s 29-6 loss to Northwestern at Beaver Stadium.  A season ago Northwestern amassed 361 yards of total offense while shutting down Penn State’s offense and consistently pressuring quarterback Christian Hackenberg into one of his worst performances of the season.  Despite Penn State’s lethargic offensive effort, it was a one- score game entering the fourth quarter before the Wildcats defense slammed the door on any hope of a Nittany Lion comeback with a pick six and forced fumble of Hackenberg on back-to-back offensive plays to put the game out of reach.

Sandwiched between home games this year against Illinois and Michigan, the road contest against Northwestern will mark the third game of a crucial late season stretch for the Nittany Lions.  A victory against the Wildcats will likely be a necessity if Penn State will have any hope of finishing the season with nine (or more) wins and carry momentum into the following week’s White Out against Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines.

Penn State leads the series against Northwestern with a record of 13-4 and had rolled off six-straight wins before last season’s loss, the most lopsided of the series for the Nittany Lions.

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Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is in his ninth season leading the Northwestern Wildcats and will be looking for his team to rebound after back-to-back losing seasons.  In 2014 Northwestern struggled, going 5-7 and finishing sixth in the Big Ten West despite recording quality wins against Penn State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.

Fitzgerald has had a roller coaster coaching career at Northwestern and achieved great success as recently as 2012, with a 10-win season and Gator Bowl victory.  However, this season he’ll look to lead the Wildcats back to a bowl game to silence any critics that may come calling if they once again fail to win six games.

Last season the Wildcats were hampered at times by offensive struggles and will be replacing several key members from 2014’s unit including its quarterback, two leading receivers and three starting linemen.

One of the biggest question marks surrounding this Northwestern squad is who will replace Trevor Siemian at quarterback.  Last season Siemian had three short yardage rushing touchdowns and passed for 258 yards against what was typically a very solid Penn State defense.  Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, senior Zack Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti are competing for the starting quarterback position this fall.

Early indications from camp point towards dual-threat and 4-star recruit Thorson being named the starter; however, some believe Fitzgerald may favor experience and tab the veteran Oliver to lead the offense.  Regardless, by the time Penn State travels to Ryan Field, Northwestern will have had plenty of time to break-in the new signal caller.

Running back Justin Jackson returns and looks to build on his very successful freshman campaign in which he gained 1,187 yards (7th in the Big Ten) and scored 10 touchdowns.  Last season, Jackson and junior Warren Long combined for nearly 100 yards rushing against the Nittany Lions’ stout run defense.  Auston Anderson and Solmon Vault will look to provide depth and explosiveness in the Wildcat’s backfield.

Northwestern will be replacing its two leading receivers and will look to senior Christian Jones, who was injured last season, to return to his 2013 form when he caught 54 passes for nearly 670 yards.  Superback Dan Vitale had 40 catches a season ago and caused havoc against Penn State with seven catches for 113 yards.  Seniors Miles Shuler, a 4star transfer from Rutgers in 2013, and Cameron Dickenson will provide additional targets in the passing game.

Northwestern’s offensive line has to replace three starters this season. However, the incoming talent will look to improve on the 34 sacks the unit surrendered in 2014.  Left tackle Geoff Mogus, right tackle Eric Olson and right guard Matt Frazier have a combined 49 career starts and will anchor the offensive line this season.

Similar to 2014, Northwestern is likely to again lean heavily on its defense to provide it with an opportunity to win football games.  During a three-game stretch last season against Western Illinois, Penn State and Wisconsin, the Wildcats allowed only 27 total points.  Assuming it can avoid the injuries that plagued the squad during times last season, the defense should be very strong considering nearly the entire defensive line and secondary return from a unit that ranked No. 53 in total defense last year.

The Wildcat’s front four looks to be loaded with experience with senior defensive ends Dean Lowry (eight tackles for loss (“TFL”) and four sacks in 2014) and Deonte Gibson (three TFL and one sack in 2014) and tackles Greg Kuhar (21.5 tackles in 2014) and Sean McEvilly (16 tackles in 2012), who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after injuries in the past two seasons.  In total, six defensive lineman with at least two TFL return in 2015.

Behind the stellar defensive line, Northwestern loses three of its top linebackers to graduation. Sophomore Anthony Walker and senior Drew Smith will be looked at to step in and improve on their 40 and 32 tackle efforts, respectively in 2014.

Passing against Northwestern may pose a challenge as the secondary is a strength for the Wildcat defense and returns a total of 10 TFL, eight interceptions and 20 pass break-ups.  Northwestern’s starting safety from a season ago was lost to graduation and will be replaced by sophomore Godwin Igwebuike, who has plenty of experience after playing in 11 games and recording 42.5 tackles and three interceptions. Joining Igwebuike at safety will be senior Traveon Henry and his 55.5 tackles.  Senior cornerbacks Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose combined for four interceptions last year and will look to lock down the edges again in 2015.

Northwestern’s kicker Jack Mitchell returns after going 14 of 18 on field goals and averaging a touchback on 35 percent of his kickoffs.  Sophomore Hunter Niswander will be a first-year punter and averaged 36 yards on five punts a season ago.

The contest with the Wildcats will be Penn State’s 10th game of the season and the question marks looming for both teams should long be answered by the time they take the field.  Come November, Northwestern will likely be battling for bowl eligibility, and based on last season’s dominating win they will certainly provide a considerable challenge for the visiting Nittany Lions.

I expect Penn State to be in a battle and have to rely on its defense to keep the Wildcat’s offense in check if it wants to escape Evanston with a victory. Penn State’s ability to move the football on offense against a very solid Northwestern defense and eliminate the turnovers that doomed it in the contest a year ago will potentially be the difference in the game.

For Penn State to fulfill its potential and take that next step in 2015 it needs to have success in the winnable games.  The Nittany Lions will need to pick up a valuable and hard fought road win against Northwestern in what is likely going to be a close contest before heading back to Beaver Stadium for the home finale.