Tomorrow the Wildcats of Northwestern come to Happy Valley. Pat Fitzgerald already has his team bowl eligible, but they are looking to improve their position for the bowl selection committees. Penn State, on the other hand, is still one game away from bowl eligibility which is something that surprisingly seemed to be in doubt just a few weeks ago. But the Nittany Lions are riding high after back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Michigan. Oh, and Joe Paterno is playing for win number 400 of his amazing career. Just to give you some perspective on that, Penn State has 817 wins all time. So Paterno has accounted for nearly half of the schools all time wins in over 100 years. Wow.
With that, here is what your BSD staff expects to see this weekend.
Penn State is coming off an emotional victory against Michigan. Joe Paterno is also going for his 400th win (not that he would say he cares about that). And with Ohio State looming next week, this Northwestern game has all the makings of your typical "trap game.". The PSU QB situation is still murky, but it looks like Rob Bolden is going to be getting the nod (as he should be) but should he falter, Penn State now has a viable number 2 option in Matt "Mac or Little Red or Brett, or McFavre" McGloin. I'm hopeful the offensive line can build on the success they had in the Michigan game and open up some more huge holes for Evan Royster. Look for Derek Moye to have a monster day.
Penn State is going to have it's hands full with Dan Persa. Persa, who is completing 74% of his passes and is the leading rusher for the Wildcats, is just the type of QB that Penn State has struggled against. He is a very good runner and the best passer of any of the dual-threat QB's in the Big Ten. Penn State's secondary is still a work in progress (scary to say this late in the year) and will be tested again this week. Gerald Hodges and company need to be more consistent and team MVP Colin Wagner will struggle in the terrible State College weather.
Not a high scoring game this week.
Prediction: Penn State 21, Northwestern 20
Even if the Scranton Slinger gets the start on Saturday, the best Pennsylvanian under center will be playing for Northwestern: redshirt junior Dan Persa boasts a 162.74 quarterback rating in his first season as a starter. The fact that Penn State never seriously recruited this dual-threat quarterback out of Bethlehem, PA is nothing short of appalling. Here's a quick rundown of his high school stats: the first player in PA high school history to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same season; 2006 AAAA player of the year; first team AAAA all state team; 2006 Maxwell Club Award winner (best player from PA, New Jersey and Delaware) and the starting QB of the PA team that beat Ohio 28-10 in the 50th Annual Big 33. If you think he hasn't been dreaming about this game for a long time and doesn't dream about beating a PA team, think again. In the "Persa File" on Northwestern's website, he's quoted as saying that the Big Ten should add Pitt (presumably the question was asked before Nebraska joined the conference) so there's another PA team in the Big Ten.
Unfortunately, I think Persa and Northwestern's attack will remind us a lot of Illinois. Even though our offense will be improved, Pat Fitzgerald's defense will be too strong. Northwestern's schedule might be weak, but their losses, like their wins, have been close games. Northwestern hasn't lost a road game since their October 17, 2009 game in East Lansing, and the six game streak includes a win in Kinnick Stadium. They make it seven tomorrow afternoon.
Prediction: Penn State 20, Nortwestern 21
Penn State's secondary hasn't done anything to make me feel comfortable heading into this game. Dan Persa is ranked near the very top of the Big Ten in many statistical passing categories, and he seems to be meeting precisely the type of defense that caters to his game. Over the years, we've seen some of the better drop-back quarterbacks in college football pick Penn State apart. From Mark Sanchez, to Ricky Stanzi, to even Greg McElroy at times during Penn State's loss to Alabama earlier this season, there's evidence that Penn State just doesn't play well against good quarterbacks. While it's probably a little unfair to compare Persa's game to that of some of the others, the truth is, he's still a solid guy to have back there and capable of making big throws. If Penn State is going to get Joe Paterno win No. 400, the key will be shutting down Persa and the Northwestern passing game. If the Nittany Lions can do that, there's a good chance they can win this game, but if they can't, things might get out of hand quickly.
On offense, this is Penn State's chance to prove it against a living, breathing defense. While everything looked fine and dandy against Michigan, the truth is there are plenty of crappy offenses that could have done well on that defense, too. Saturday will be the real mark of progress. If Penn State can find some running room and protect whichever quarterback starts, than it will be a nice, substantive step forward. If it can't, well, then it's just more of the same.
I hate to be the wet blanket, but I just don't see it all coming together. 400 is going to have to wait.
Prediction: Northwestern 38 Penn State 20
When they have the ball, it'll be all about our linebackers. Chris Colasanti had his best game of the year last week. Against Denard Robinson, Scrap and Vandy kept the rotations coming, like they have all year, and Mauti and Stupar were flying. They'll need more good LB play this week to cover Dan Persa, a real wizard at keeping plays alive. I expect to see Sean Stanley start this week and Jordan Hill to move back to spelling Devon Still, but I don't know what that will mean for our pass rush. He and Pete Massaro look they're both still learning quite a bit. But LJ keeps them fresh, too, and we'll see a bit more of James Terry, some Kevion Latham and Daquan Jones and a deep rotation of linebackers that includes Chris Colasanti, Michael Mauti, Nathan Stupar, Gerald Hodges and Bani Gbadyu. I think we'll stay fresh enough to get some needed stops.
When we have the ball, I'll be watching to see if Doug Klopacz, who had his best game of the season last week, regresses or continues to improve. Depending where he lines up, either Chima Okoli or Quinn Barham should have their hands full with #94 Vince Browne, who terrorized Kirk Cousins in the first half against Sparty. I'm also curious to watch the playcalling balance. I can't expect we'll be able to run as well this week as we did last, but we'll see. Troutman and Wiz sure looked good making holes for Royster last week. When passing, I'll look for more of the comfortable rollouts and probably a few fewer bubble screens. I'm also guessing we'll see some very solid Robert Bolden. We all remember he was on fire before looking like a lost puppy on his scramble and getting knocked out. I'd guess they added in some running coaching for him these past two weeks. While the points won't flow in at quite the rapid rate they did last week, I think there's enough momentum and a taste for the endzone that won't be quickly forgotten.
Prediction: Penn State 35, Northwestern 23
Penn State is getting it done this weekend plain and simple. A shot at 400 wins, plus coming off of a big win last week has got to mean Penn State is going to win. This team has finally started to find itself, and ought to be less prone to Illinois type 60min brain-farts. While Northwestern isn't a bad team, they just don't have the guys to get it done against Penn State. Northwestern ought to play well, but I don't see them having the horses to play with the amount of depth Penn State has on offense. Defensivly If Penn State plays sound pass defense and doesn't fall asleep, Persa shouldn't pick the secondary apart enough to cause any serious damage. I wouldn't be suprised if he puts up decent numbers, but in the end I don't think his supporting cast will be enough.
For me the biggest thing is Rob Bolden. I want him to start off strong so the crowd doesn't get on his back and we start hearing McGloin chants. I don't think it will be a problem, but Bolden getting a smooth transition back into the swing of things will be important for the rest of the year. That also carries over to the running game's success last week as well as the "realative" success in the redzone. If all of the positive things from the Michigan game carry over in one way or another, it should be enough.
Prediction: Penn State 30, Northwestern 17
BSD Mike Says...
I can understand the uneasiness Penn State fans have about this game. The Penn State offense has looked terrible against teams that don't come from states that start with the letter M. The defense looks sketchy even though they manage the get the job done most of the time.
But come on, people. This is Northwestern. They are a scrappy team like always. They can't overpower you so they try to out-think you. They'll dink and dunk their way down the field and when he has to Dan Persa will scramble for the four yards they need. But once they get down in the redzone and the cornerbacks can't play seven yards off the line anymore and the linebacker don't have to worry about dropping back ten yards into coverage, the Wildcats will sputter and have to kick the field goals. I'm looking for big games from Devon Still, Ollie Ogbu, and Pete Massaro as Northwestern gives up a ton of sacks.
The Northwestern defense should pose more of a problem for the Penn State offense than the Michigan defense did. That's because Michigan is stupid in the way they replace a 250 lb defensive end with a 195 lb safety and expect to stop teams from running on them. Fitzgerald, like 99% of all football coaches in the history of the game, still hasn't figured out the genius of GERG, so they go with a more conventional 4-3 scheme, and their linebackers actually kind of know what they are supposed to be doing. But still, one has to believe that not all of Penn State's newfound fortune is the result of poor competition and at least part of their turnaround has come from just getting better. They looked like a new team coming out of the bye week playing with energy and enthusiasm. There's no danger of a trap game here because this team realizes there is no room for error going forward. This game is "must win" more than the Ohio State game is. So I look for Penn State to roll in this one.
Prediction: Penn State 34, Northwestern 20