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Previewing The Enemy: Northwestern Wildcats

It’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.

No. 11 Penn State football (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) is set to open its Big Ten-only slate against Northwestern Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium. Despite a season-opening win over Nebraska in Ireland, the Wildcats have struggled mightily and have losses to Duke, Southern Illinois, and Miami (Ohio).

While James Franklin is only 1-2 against Northwestern, Penn State commands the all-time series with a 14-5 advantage. This is their first meeting since 2017.

The Team

Pat Fitzgerald is now in his 26th year as Northwestern’s head coach and holds a 110-93 record as skipper, claiming first place in the Big Ten West in both 2018 and 2020. Despite falling to Ohio State in the conference championship game during the COVID-19 year, the Wildcats took home a Citrus Bowl win over Auburn.

Mike Bajakian has served as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator since late 2019 and brings NFL coaching experience back to Evanston. This year, only Iowa has put up worse numbers than Northwestern on offense in the Big Ten as the Wildcats average 23 points per game to Penn State’s 39. Northwestern features a high-pace offense and has run more plays than any other conference foe thus far.

On defense, Jim O’Neil, a native of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, leads the charge. He also has plenty of NFL coordinator experience and is in his second year as defensive coordinator. The Wildcats have allowed the second-most touchdowns and rushing yards in the Big Ten this season.

Offense

Junior Ryan Hilinski is Northwestern’s quarterback and earned Co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after the Wildcats’ season-opening win. But, it’s mostly been downhill from there as he threw three interceptions in the ensuing three games en route to a trio of losses. Overall, Hilinski has the second-most passing yards in the conference but has thrown for just five touchdowns.

Hilinski’s favorite target is running back Evan Hull, who’s likely the Wildcats’ biggest offensive weapon. He leads the conference in all-purpose yards and was singled out by James Franklin as a player to watch ahead of the game. Hull’s scored four times this season and, in addition to averaging 4.4 yards per carry, has added 311 receiving yards.

Malik Washington is the go-to wideout and is just behind Hull with 305 receiving yards and 27 receptions on the year. Donny Navarro III has scored through the air a team-high two times and passed the 100-yard mark in last week’s loss to Miami (Ohio).

Tight end Thomas Gordan has gotten involved in the passing game as well and has 11 receptions for 146 yards this season. The redshirt junior is finally carving out a role in the offense after catching just two passes in 2021.

Offensive lineman Peter Skoronski is easily Northwestern’s best player and projects as a first-round draft pick. The Wildcats have allowed five sacks this year, which puts them at No. 5 in the conference.

Defense

While the Wildcats’ defense is nothing to write home about, a few players have stood out so far this season.

Linebacker Bryce Gallagher leads the team in tackles with 38 and was singled out by Franklin as an impressive player on tape. The redshirt junior is yet to record a sack but has a pass breakup on the year. His 89 tackles were top-20 in the conference last season.

Xander Mueller and Greyson Metz round out the linebacker corps for the Wildcats. Mueller’s 25 tackles are tied for second-most this season and he’s one of seven Northwestern players with a sack to their name.

Adetomiwa Adebawore stands out as a force along the defensive line and has registered two sacks in four games. The senior has 17 tackles, a forced fumble, and a pass breakup on record this season already.

Adebawore is the only defensive lineman to break into double-digit tackles so far this season.

In the secondary, Franklin said that defensive back Cameron Mitchell stood out on tape. He has a team-high four pass breakups and one interception this year to go along with his 11 tackles.

Duke transfer Jeremiah Lewis leads the secondary with 25 tackles and has three pass breakups of his own. Safety Coco Azema has 20 tackles of his own but has yet to log any impact stats in the pass-defense game. Mueller leads the team with two interceptions and Garnett Hollis Jr. had one against Duke.

Special Teams

Adam Stage is the Wildcats’ placekicker and has made three of his five attempts this season. The graduate student is perfect on extra points thus far.

Luke Akers is the team’s punter and is averaging just shy of 42 yards per punt. He’s launched a punt as long as 52 yards this season.

Franklin made sure to mention the consistency of snapper Will Halkyard in his press conference this week.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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