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Penn State-Northwestern Game Preview

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Justin K. Aller

Penn State looks to improve to 2-0 in Big Ten play, while keeping pace with Nebraska as the only remaining undefeated teams in the conference.

Penn State (4-0, 1-0) vs. Northwestern (1-2, 0-0)

Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Line: PSU -10.5

TV: BTN Eric Collins (play-by-play), J Lehman (analyst) Tina Cervasio (sideline)

Weather: Bright and sunny with a high of 79.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 4-0, 1st Year

OVERALL RECORD: 29-15, 4th Year

VS. NORTHWESTERN: 0-1

Pat Fitzgerald:

NORTHWESTERN RECORD: 56-48, 9th Year

OVERALL RECORD: Same

VS. PENN STATE: 0-5

...NOW THE FUN PART

NORTHWESTERN OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE
For the second consecutive week, Penn State will face one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation. The Wildcats are averaging 115.3 yards per game thus far, ranking 106th nationally. When considering how unbelievably stout Penn State's run defense has played in the first four weeks, it's easy to see how Northwestern could have a difficult time moving the ball with any regularity. The sudden departure of speedy playmaker Venric Mark during the summer left the Wildcats without a true number one running back. Freshman Justin Jackson and senior Treyvon Green mostly split carries. Jackson is the team's leading rusher with 184 yards on 41 carries in three games, which include contests against MAC and FCS opponents.

Senior Trevor Siemian returns as a three-year starter at quarterback. The Floridian has not progressed much since earning his first start as a sophomore, connecting on 59.1 percent of his passes while throwing just two touchdowns and three interceptions. With the Wildcats suffering in the run game, he will need to overachieve for the offense to have a productive afternoon.

Siemian is skilled with distributing the ball to a variety of receivers, connecting with 13 different Wildcats on the season. Junior Cameron Dickson is the team's leading receiver, but has only seven receptions for 129 yards thus far- basically, a solid afternoon for Geno Lewis.

NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE
Penn State will certainly try to build on its impressive performance on the ground against UMASS. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, the rush defenses will be much more stingy than the Minutemen for the remainder of the season. Northwestern is solid against the run, allowing 139.7 yards per game. Another 200-plus yards rushing for the Nittany Lions would be a huge boost for the confidence of a very young offensive line, and could help develop a more balanced, and much more dangerous, Nittany Lion offensive attack for the remainder of the season.

The Wildcats secondary has struggled this season, allowing 257.3 yards through the air per contest. Christian Hackenberg had one his most uneven performances against UMASS, and has a great chance to bounce back this week. Northwestern has allowed six touchdowns through the air through three games, so Hackenberg may finally find the right side of the touchdown:interception ratio.

Defensive end Dean Lowry has collected 2.5 sacks on the season and could make things difficult for Hackenberg. Fellow defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo is also capable of forcing Hackenberg out of the pocket throughout the game. The sophomore speed rusher has two sacks and three forced fumbles already for the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
Punter Chris Gulla has looked like another version of Jeremy Kapinos at times, but has also been plagued by inconsistency so far. Freshman punter Daniel Pasquariello made the most of his two punts in mop-up duty against UMASS, and could force some competition for the main job. Keep an eye out to see if Pasquariello gets an opportunity in meaningful time this Saturday.

Kicker Sam Ficken continues to impress during his senior campaign, drilling two 40-plus yard field goals in the first quarter against UMASS before the offense began heating up. Ficken is now perfect on extra points and 8 of 9 on field goals (with the only miss caused by an otherworldly effort by a Rutgers defender) and may find himself as an unlikely Lou Groza Award finalist. Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell has connected on both field goal attempts this season, with a long of just 28. Punter Chris Gradone already has 20 punts in three games, averaging 39.9 yards per punt with a long of 55 yards.

PREDICTION

PENN STATE-27  NORTHWESTERN-13
Penn State may be the hardest team to predict in the nation. On one hand, they could lose any game on the remainder of the schedule because of a lack of an established running game and a struggling offensive line. On the other hand, they could also win any game on the schedule because of a dominant defense and several big-time playmakers on offense.

My biggest concern is that Pat Fitzgerald has a history of getting his teams to overachieve, and this may be the week the team puts it all together to pick up an unexpected victory. But for this to happen, many, many things will need to go in the Wildcats favor. At the end of the day, I just don't think Northwestern has the offensive firepower to do enough against a rapidly improved Penn State defense.

Northwestern will put up a great fight and keep it close with Penn State clinging to a 13-10 halftime lead. The second half will mostly be in Penn State's favor as the offense puts together a couple long touchdown drives and the defense forces several consecutive three and outs.