A strong offensive start and stifling front seven defense led Northwestern to a 29-6 win at Penn State on Saturday, opening the Wildcats' conference schedule with the team's first win in State College since 2004.
Northwestern was firing on all cylinders in the first quarter, cruising down the field on offense and demolishing Penn State at the line of scrimmage. Trevor Siemian (21/37, 258 yards, one interception) was in prime form -- the best he'd been in all season -- firing passes to targets all over the field and keeping his composure in the pocket. Big punt returns from Miles Shuler ignited the offense and led to two touchdowns, both Siemian keepers.
Superback Dan Vitale (seven catches, 113 yards) reemerged as a critical cog in the Northwestern offense, and wide receiver Tony Jones returned with three catches for 31 yards.
The Wildcats shifted away from the ineffective power I offense they'd been running for the past three games and back toward the quick spread they succeed with in 2012. While Siemian struggled to keep the momentum going beyond the first quarter, the offense replaced checkdowns and gut runs with screens, slants and a few deep passes to keep the Penn State defense honest.
While Northwestern was successful on offense, it dominated Penn State on defense. The Wildcat front seven -- which had been playing well all season -- had a banner day led by linebacker Anthony Walker, who stepped in for the injured Collin Ellis. The redshirt freshman had eight tackles and a 49-yard pick six in the fourth quarter. The unit dominated the line of scrimmage, holding Penn State to 33 rushing yards and sacking Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (22/45, 216 yards) four times.
The sophomore quarterback -- expected to dominate an inconsistent Northwestern secondary -- struggled to get anything going for Penn State, constantly missing receivers under immense pressure from the Northwestern front seven.
However, Northwestern's win comes with an injury scare with potential season-long implications: Matthew Harris left the game late in the third quarter after sustaining a hit the head from Hackenberg as the cornerback attempted to force him out of bounds. The hit -- which appeared to be clean and accidental -- immediately sent Harris to the turf, where he laid for 15 minutes before being carted off.
As he was leaving the field, he raised his right hand with a thumbs up before being taken to a nearby hospital for further medical evaluation. He was alert and moving, but there is no expectation of when he will return to action.
Northwestern returns to Ryan Field next weekend, where they will play Wisconsin.