Penn State loks to improve on its 1-0 start in the Big Ten Saturday in Happy Valley against a ranked Northwestern squad that's outplaying any and all expectations. So as always, we reached out to the foremost authority on the Lions' opposition, and Rodger over at Sippin' on Purple was more than forthcoming in offering plenty of insight. So thanks a ton, Rodger, and remember to check out Sippin' On Purple all season long to stay up to date on the Wildcats. Also, be sure to check back later this week, to read my answers to Rodger's questions about this Nittany Lion team.
Black Shoe Diaries: Northwestern comes in to this game undefeated, ranked, and off the most dominant offensive performance from any Big Ten team thusfar this season. How have fans expectations changed since the start of the year?
Sippin' On Purple: They've changed a lot, actually. When we did our season prediction thread, most people thought Northwestern would win six or seven games. I predicted six, although I was being intentionally pessimistic because I like fun surprises more than I like getting my hopes up and having them dashed into little tiny pieces. Obviously, NU would have to have a terrible collapse to finish 6-6. There was always the idea that Northwestern could start out with seven wins with a back-heavy schedule, but I don't think any of us understood how bad our non-conference opponents would be, and I don't think any of us could've possibly predicted how bad the Big Ten is. As of today, NU is undefeated and ranked, with only one ranked opponent on the seven games left. There's even talk about potentially winning the Legends Division, although there'd have to be a perfect storm for that to happen, and everybody who says that deserves to get smote a bunch of times for jinxship and not subscribing to my "predict suckitude, hope you're wrong" guide to life.
BSD: Usually, the saying goes, when you have 2 QBs you really have no QBs. But in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, Northwestern has 2 QBs and a slot receiver. How much of each should Penn State expect to see?
SOP: If I knew, I'd tell you. Actually, I wouldn't, because that would be a bad idea as a Northwestern fan, but my point is, I don't know. At the start of the season, I didn't think Siemian would play at all. Before last week, I thought we'd see Siemian continue to take about half the snaps - Colter's a better runner, Siemian has a stronger arm, so they'd been trading off to give teams different looks. Now, I expect to see Colter play half the time as a QB with a heavy emphasis on options and zone reads, and Siemian half the time at QB with Colter out in the slot. But Colter's a ridiculous athlete and I'm sure there's tricks somewhere up Pat Fitzgerald's sleeves. Colter's not a bad passer, runs perfect routes and has great hands, and has the speed and cutting ability to play running back. Hat-tip to Jim Harbaugh for pulling Colter's scholarship when he hurt his shoulder in high school.
BSD: Past Northwestern teams, with their spread offenses, have given Penn State a lot of trouble. How has the added dimension of a dominant running game, led by Colter and Venric Mark, turned the Wildcat offense into an elite one?
My co-writer MountainTiger broke down NU's running attack in depth the other day; as he shows, Northwestern likes to run a zone read set where defenses have to account for a) a quarterback who can throw to a talented wide receiver corps b) a running back in Mike Trumpy who can take the ball up the gut c) Colter's ability to take the ball to the outside d) a speed demon in Venric Mark. Indiana really couldn't stop that, but then again, y'know, Indiana.
There's plenty more after the jump, including Rodger's final prediction for the game.
BSD: Two games that looked like blowouts early--the wins over Syracuse and Indiana--turned into nailbiters for Northwestern. Was that a case of taking the foot off the gas, or good adjustments by the Orange and Hoosiers?
SOP: Some would say the poor second-half performances had to do with stamina: both teams ran hurry-up offenses, and both games featured NU's offense scoring relatively quickly, leaving Indiana on the field for a long time. Others would say a cruel, Northwestern-hating god torments his un-chosen people by perpetually have us go up by a large number of points - hey, remember two years ago when we were up 21-nothing on y'all? Yeah, you're not the only ones - and blow it. We were lucky enough to score a get a foolish personal foul called so we could score a touchdown on our final drive to take back a lead against Syracuse, but it wasn't as bad against Indy.
BSD: Defensively, Northwestern has been pretty vulnerable to the pass, and it looks like they'll be heading into the Penn State game without a couple pieces. How can Matt McGloin and the Bill O'Brien offense take advantage?
SOP: Most of Northwestern's pass defense problems happened in the first game, where NU gave up 470 yards - not including 60 yards of pass interference calls - to Ryan Nassib, Syracuse's all-Big East QB who threw the ball at will throughout the second half against a gassed NU defense in a 95-degree dome. Since then, Northwestern has benched cornerback Demetrius Dugar, who was in one-on-one coverage on deep balls for, let's say conservatively, 125 yards of that 470, and replaced him with Quinn Evans, a fifth-year transfer student from Stanford, who was in one-on-one coverage on deep balls for let's say, 50 yards of that. Safety Ibraheim Campbell was out for the second half against Indiana, when the Hoosiers did most of their passing, but he'll be ready for PSU. As for McGloin, I don't think he has to worry - from what's looked like a mediocre-ish career to outsiders, that dude has torched NU for six touchdowns and zero picks in two games. I'm not making that up! He's done that!
BSD: Northwestern's the ranked team, but Penn State's the favorite. How do you see this one playing out?
SOP: There's a lot of reasons for Northwestern to lose this game: we haven't won a game as a ranked team in the AP Poll since 2001 - we've been ranked SEVERAL times, we swear - we're headed on the road for the first time since Week 1 (when we barely beat an awful Cuse team) and NU hasn't started 6-0 since 1962. So I'll call a loss. 38-31, Penn State. Oh wait, field goals. Make it 35-31.
Thanks again, Rodger, and remember, check Sippin' On Purple later this week to see what I had to say when Rodger put me on the hot seat.