No. 6 Penn State brings dominant defense to Northwestern

Field Level Media

September 26, 2023 at 6:17 pm.

Penn State players cling to a theory about turnovers.

So far, it has served the No. 6 Nittany Lions remarkably well.

Penn State (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) enters Saturday’s visit to conference rival Northwestern as the lone Football Bowl Subdivision program that hasn’t committed a giveaway this season.

“If you drop the ball, you’re cheating everybody’s dreams,” Nittany Lions fullback Kaytron Allen said. “We’re chasing dreams. This is our dream. You can’t lose it.”

While the Nittany Lions haven’t lost a game this season thanks in great part to their ball security, a tough defense also has propelled their unbeaten start.

In Penn State’s most recent game, a 31-0 shutout of visiting Iowa, the defense held the Hawkeyes to 76 total yards — the program’s stingiest effort against a Big Ten foe. The Nittany Lions forced four fumbles a week after notching five takeaways in their conference opener at Illinois, a 30-13 victory.

It all adds up to a unit that leads the nation in multiple defensive categories, including total defense (219.5 yards per game), pass defense (138 yards per game), first downs allowed (46) and turnover margin (plus-11).

“Stats sometimes tell a story and kind of reinforce some things that you’re doing,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said.

To Northwestern counterpart David Braun, Penn State’s defensive objectives are clear.

“They’re aggressive. They’re balanced. You can’t find a weakness on that defense,” said Braun, the Wildcats’ interim coach. “Really well-coached. Willing to play tight coverage. Mix in some different looks. Put stress on you on first and second down.”

The Wildcats (2-2, 1-1) are coming off a 37-34 overtime victory at home against Minnesota last Saturday.

After falling behind 31-10 through three quarters, Northwestern rallied to tie the game at 31 on Ben Bryant’s 11-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Henning with two seconds remaining in regulation. The game-winner was a 25-yard TD pass from Bryant to Charlie Mangieri in OT.

While Northwestern welcomed the victory, to be sure, Braun acknowledged he hopes the players harness a better sense of urgency against the Nittany Lions and going forward this season.

“On both sides of the football, we need to find some of that mojo in the first quarter to get going,” Braun said. “I think that only helps an offense turn positive plays into positive drives and points.”

Wildcats wideout Bryce Kirtz earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week plaudits with his standout effort against the Golden Gophers. Kirtz had 10 receptions for 215 yards and two touchdowns — all career bests — while posting the fourth-highest single-game receiving yardage total in school history.

Saturday will offer a matchup of quarterbacks aiming to build off big games. Bryant was 33-of-49 passing for 396 yards and four TDs with no interceptions.

While his yardage total of 166 wasn’t as prolific, Penn State’s Drew Allar also threw for four scores, including a pair to Tyler Warren.

Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions will aim to keep rolling behind their defense. Linebacker Curtis Jacobs helped pace the effort against Iowa with two fumble recoveries.

Penn State has won eight of the last 10 meetings with Northwestern and boasts a 15-5 edge in the all-time series.