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How will Penn State avoid an upset against the Northwestern Wildcats? Here are 2 key matchups

Penn State is 4-0 after defeating Central Michigan at home. The Nittany Lions will have their second game in a row at Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon when they take on the 1-3 Northwestern Wildcats. The game will be Penn State’s second conference matchup of the year after beating Purdue on the road in the season opener.

Let’s take a look at the two key matchups that will decide how the Nittany Lions can avoid an upset.

Jon Sauber: Northwestern OT Peter Skoronski vs. Penn State’s defensive ends

There isn’t a lot to be excited about with this Northwestern team. The Wildcats’ only win came in Dublin, Ireland against a Nebraska team that was in so much turmoil that it fired its head coach a few weeks later. That being said, there is one major bright spot on the Northwestern offense. Skoronski is as good as it gets among draft eligible offensive linemen right now and is the answer to the question, “why isn’t Penn State’s Olu Fashanu the best offensive tackle in the country?”

The Northwestern big man is nimble and athletic, handling some of the best speed rushers with relative ease. He’s not one to get beat up the field and requires a refined gameplan or a specific skill set to beat him. Now, the rest of the Northwestern offensive line isn’t even close to his level, so that doesn’t mean Penn State won’t be able to get after the quarterback in this one. This is less about the impact on the outcome of the game and more about finding out just how good Penn State’s defensive ends are as pass rushers. The team’s three options would all do well to get reps against Skoronski and test their ability.

Chop Robinson is the most well regarded of the three, but is also the kind of speed rusher the Northwestern lineman can handle. However, he has the versatility in rush moves — using his length and counters to beat opponents — to win the 1-on-1 battle. Adisa Isaac can win with length and power, the two things Skoronski struggles with most as a blocker. Nick Tarburton has a relentless motor and can also win with power and length but doesn’t have the athleticism Isaac possesses to capitalize on winning the initial contact with the offensive tackle.

All three offensive tackles will have a chance against Skoronski because of his deficiencies, but it still may not matter. He’s one of the best offensive tackles in college football for a reason. The outcomes of those repeated battles will go a long way in determining if this pass rush really will be able to compete with nay in the country. That especially to Robinson, who should theoretically play into Skoronski’s hands. If he still wins those battles, there may not be a tackle in the country who can keep up with him off the edge.

Kyle J. Andrews: Northwestern LB Xander Mueller vs. Penn State TE Brenton Strange

Northwestern is a team that has struggled since its 31-28 victory over Nebraska on Aug. 27. Since then, the Wildcats have consistently let teams march down the field on their defensive unit and push the ball over the goal line. Northwestern has allowed 31 points in two losses against Duke (31-23 on Sept. 10) and Southern Illinois (31-24 on Sept. 17) .

The unit as a whole has allowed 26.8 points per game, ranking 82nd out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. It would be hard to find many bright spots on a team that’s gone 1-3 to start the season, especially on a unit that has given up a great deal of points to what should be lesser opponents (minus Duke).

Enter Xander Mueller.

He is one of the few bright spots of Northwestern’s defense. The junior 4-3 weak side linebacker has put together a solid beginning to his season with 25 tackles (17 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two interceptions in four games. Mueller has shown that he can cover tight ends and will deliver on getting into passing lanes to cause problems. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound linebacker will most likely be tasked with keeping Penn State tight end Brenton Strange under wraps.

Every opportunity that Strange has gotten this season to get deep into the second or third levels of the field, he’s seized it. The junior tight end has averaged 15.1 yards per catch and has beaten safeties at times. Strange has a great deal of athletic ability that isn’t hindered by speedier defenders and he can out-muscle weaker defenders, most of which aren’t going to match him in that department.

With 14 receptions for 211 yards and three touchdowns, he’s the Nittany Lions second-leading receiver behind junior Parker Washington. Washington has just one more receiving yard and two additional catches and Strange is tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns with senior transfer Mitchell Tinsley.

Good luck to Mueller because he’ll need it.

Penn State tight end Brenton Strange watches a Central Michigan defender as he runs with the ball during the game on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.
Penn State tight end Brenton Strange watches a Central Michigan defender as he runs with the ball during the game on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.