All week during practice, Penn State defenders played a game of Where’s Waldo.
Only they weren’t looking for the lanky, spectacled, red-and-white-striped sweater-wearing character typically hiding out among a backdrop of wacky bystanders.
Rather "Waldo" was code for "Colter," as in Kain Colter — Northwestern's do-it-all hybrid player who had been the focal point of the Wildcats' offense up until Saturday’s game.
“We certainly had to be aware of him on every single play,” Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “There was big awareness whether he was in the backfield as a quarterback or where he was.”
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Penn State coaches opted to dress freshmen Malik Golden and Eugene Lewis in No. 2 jerseys to mimic Colter’s running, passing and receiving skills in practice.
In the end, the real Colter showed up at Beaver Stadium and in the box score, but his numbers were paltry against a stingy Penn State defense. Where Colter had racked up 304 all-purpose yards a week ago, he managed just 41 against a Nittany Lion defense led by senior linebacker Gerald Hodges.
All in all, Northwestern (5-1) managed just 247 yards against Penn State after racking up 719 last week against Indiana.
“It wasn’t 700 yards against us. It was 700 yards against someone else,” Hodges said. “I’m not going to knock them, he definitely is a great player, they have a great offense, great defense, great team. But they had to come in here and still play the game.”
A lot of Penn State’s defensive success was sparked by Hodges’ play.
He had a team-high 11 tackles, broke up two passes and forced fumble a to end Penn State's 39-28 victory with authority.
Four of Northwestern’s eight first-half drives ended thanks to plays made by Hodges.
He combined with Jordan Hill to pull Colter down for a stop on third-and-six to halt the Wildcats’ first drive.
With Penn State up by a field goal in the second quarter, Hodges dropped into coverage from his outside linebacker spot and slapped a Trevor Siemian pass out of the air on third-and-seven to force Northwestern’s third punt of the afternoon.
“I think he was very active and he really got better in the passing game,” said Roof, who called Saturday’s effort Hodge’s best game yet. “His pass defense was better, much improved. He’s been playing hard all year but he got better this week like we expected him to and I’m real proud of him.”
Hodges wasn’t finished. On the Wildcats’ next drive, Hodges was all over Colter, who cut across the middle of the field before Siemian fired a pass his way. Hodges knocked it down to force a fourth-and-nine punt from the Northwestern nine.
The pass-breakup and ensuing punt gave Penn State a short field from the Wildcats’ 40 and the Nittany Lions needed eight plays to get into the end zone to take a 10-0 lead with over nine minutes to play in the second.
With Northwestern just across midfield moments later, Hodges flew around the Wildcats’ offensive line and teamed with Hill again to bring down Mike Trumpy for a two-yard loss on third-and-one.
Since Penn State does not employ a nickel defense — where an extra defensive back matches up against an additional receiver — Hodges and his fellow linebackers expected a heavy dose of Colter throughout the game. But Northwestern couldn’t exploit the Colter-against-linebacker matchup and the versatile player touched the ball just five more times the rest of the game.
“We expected more as far as what we were going to see from him but I guess they just never ran them,” senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. “We preached all week to get three-and-outs and don’t let them get comfortable.”
Hodges seemed settled in at the onset of the game and only got more comfortable as it unfolded.
On Northwestern’s final offensive play, Hodges hammered receiver Tony Jones and popped the football loose. Da’Quan Davis recovered it to seal Penn State’s fourth straight win.
As Penn State players repeated afterward, stopping Colter first was the key.
“That definitely was one of the main roles,” Hodges said. “They say, ‘Where’s Waldo?’ And that’s finding (Colter) wherever he’s at on the field and knowing what he’s doing.”