Preview: Penn State (3-2) vs No. 24 Northwestern (5-0)

Mike Pettigano/Black Shoe Diaries

The Wildcats will put up a great fight, and this game should be one of the more entertaining matchups this entire Saturday.

So, we hear Northwestern's got a nice offense. Hey Mauti, you hear they got a nice offense? Time to preview this sucker...

Penn St. Nittany Lions (3-2) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (5-0)

Kickoff: 12 p.m. Beaver Stadium (110,753), University Park, PA
The Line: Penn State -3
TV: ESPN Dave Pasch (p-by-p), Brian Griese (analyst), Jenn Brown (sideline)
Weather: 55 degrees. Chance for rain. Light/moderate breeze.

COACHES:

Bill O'Brien:
PENN STATE RECORD: 3-2, 1st year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. NORTHWESTERN: First Meeting

Pat Fitzgerald
NORTHWESTERN RECORD: 45-36, 7th year
OVERALL RECORD: same
VS. PENN STATE: 0-4

NOW THE FUN PART

NW Offense vs PSU Defense -

Another game, another new offense to prepare for. So far this season, Penn State's defense has been improving in almost every facet of the game. In our discussion this week of the stats from both teams, it was becoming very evident that what Ted Roof has managed to do is simply install a different version of the old Bend But Don't Break Suck defense Penn State ran for years with great success. This week against Northwestern, against an offense that fields one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten--Kain Colter--the Nittany Lions defense faces probably its stiffest test.

Northwestern runs a run-first spread offense that's managed to reach this point in the season sporting the No. 2 rushing game in the Big Ten (255 ypg). The problem for opposing defenses is that it's not just a one-man show with Colter. His backfield counterpart, RB Venric Mark, is the fourth-leading rusher in the conference (107.6 ypg). This game could quickly come down to one thing: Penn State's ability to shut down the QB-read option with Colter and Mark. Typically, Penn State has been well-trained to do so, but does tend to give up yardage in the process. We know that Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges can do the job on the outside rushing game, but what about the critical discipline that must be shown by the defensive ends--Sean Stanley and Deion Barnes? Penn State must get solid production--including occupying blockers to allow the linebackers to fill the gaps--from its ends.

PSU Offense vs NW Defense -

The Wildcats will hang their hats this year on their improved defense. However, improved is a relative term, especially when discussing Northwestern. Remember how I wrote last week that Illinois' bad pass defense would haunt them against Penn State? Well, Northwestern comes into State College with a pass defense dead last in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game (289), and only seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense. The Cats' rush defense isn't so shabby, though, coming in at No. 1 in the Big Ten (90 ypg). Of the five opponents so far, I'd only consider Indiana a decent offensive football team. And the Hoosiers ran for a buck sixty-four against the vaunted Purple Rush D.

I'm not concerned that Bill O'Brien will call a great game offensively. If it rains, I'm worried that the offense itself can execute those called plays when it matters. One or two drops in a game like this could mean the difference between a win or loss. The gradual emergence of Zack Zwinak as an every-down running back might be the perfect remedy for what could be a sloppy day in the pass game. With Zwinak and Belton running over and through the Illinois defense last week, Penn State could be just a few good completions away this week from opening up the run game once again, this time against the Wildcats.

Special Teams -

It was kind of nice to rest last week, knowing that once Penn State built up a sizable lead, a missed field goal wasn't the end of the world. Unfortunately, Penn State probably won't be going up 21-0 on every opponent the rest of this year. So at some point or another, the Nittany Lions will have to make a field goal under pressure, one that could win the game. As far as the punting game goes, I like the improvement from Alex Butterworth. Let's hope that continues, along with a few good returns to liven things up a bit. Northwestern hasn't missed a field goal or PAT all season. But they're also worst in the Big Ten in kickoff return coverage. Both teams this week have an Achilles' Hell on special teams. Which one will get hit first?

Prediction -

Northwestern gives up a lot of first downs (20.2 pg), which gives me hope that Penn State's offense can stay on the field. For me, that's the ball game right there. Penn State's offense can win the day, not by simply scoring points, but doing it in methodical fashion, keeping Colter and Mark on the sideline. There is no doubt that this is the best opponent Penn State has faced this season to date. There is a real advantage playing this one at home, particularly coming off such an emotionally-gratifying win last week on the road. I've watched Penn State lose to Northwestern twice, one of those coming in-person, in Beaver Stadium. So I know it can happen. The Wildcats will put up a great fight, and this game should be one of the more entertaining matchups this entire Saturday.

In the end, Penn State's defense is better than the Northwestern offense. Matt McGloin feasts on a vulnerable Wildcats secondary, while Zwinak and crew start chewing up the NW front seven by the fourth quarter. Colter and Mark will have their moments, with some really impressive drives sprinkled though an overall rough day. Northwestern gains the yards, but can't punch it into the end zone when it matters. Mauti will finish the day a candidate for his third defensive player of the week honor, but is surpassed by Hodges' best game of the season.

Penn State 38 - Northwestern 29


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