Northwestern has gotten off to a slow start this season, but they'll have a chance to climb back to .500 and play spoiler for homecoming, and Penn State's first home Big Ten game in the post-sanctions era. While the Wildcats have taken Penn State to the brink in recent years, it's been a one-sided rivalry for the past decade, with Northwestern's last win over Penn State coming way back in 2004. Can they pull of the upset Saturday? Kevin Trahan, of InsideNU (and the SBN mothership), sheds some light on why that just might (but probably won't) happen.
BlackShoeDiaries: Northwestern comes into this game 1-2, the lone win coming against an FCS opponent who outgained the 'Cats by 100 yards. What's gone so wrong this season?
Inside NU: The biggest problem is the offense, which is currently the worst in the Power 5 conferences. The Wildcats struggled on offense at times last year, but they could at least move the ball somewhat efficiently. This year, they've been incredibly inefficient, and that's due in part to the coaches mixing in a scheme that doesn't for the personnel, and also due in part to a complete lack of execution. The worst part is, despite this clearly not working, the coaches don't seem like they plan on addressing the problem.
BSD: On the flipside, despite the slow start, what has given Northwestern fans reason for optimism moving forward?
INU: Usually Northwestern has a good offense and a bad defense. Given the uptick in recruiting, you'd think it would now have a good offense and a good defense. The latter has held up its end of the deal. As safety Ibraheim Campbell said, it's "a new level of athlete" out there, and that's why the Wildcats will be in a lot of games this season, even if the offense can't score. Offensively, true freshman running backs Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault look like the real deal. Jackson was Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois last year, and he's played like it so far. If he can get going more, maybe the offense will improve. But at the very least, the future looks brighter.
BSD: The loss of Venric Mark took one of the most exciting players out of the Big Ten. How has Northwestern been forced to adapt without him?
INU: Where Northwestern really misses Mark is on punt returns. He as an All-American punt returner, not an All-American running back. At running back, NU has the personnel to fill his shoes with Jackson and Vault, who both might be more talented than Mark. However, without Mark around, the coaches have been incorporating more power running packages into the offense, which doesn't fit any of the personnel but the new tight ends. So what the coaches think they need to be without Mark might be hurting the offense more than the lack of Mark himself.
BSD: A couple years ago, it seemed like Pat Fitzgerald was the nation's best young coach. Since then, he's stagnated. Can Fitzgerald bring Northwestern a period of sustained success, and if not, can the university afford to fire him?
INU: I think Fitzgerald has proven he's a solid recruiter. He hasn't proven he can get this program to average more than 7.5 wins per season, so if that's a fair barometer of success for fans, then it makes sense to keep him around for awhile. I don't think he will (or should) be fired, and given that he has a contract through 2020, there's really no way they're going to get rid of him unless he goes on a really long streak of bad years.
BSD: What players are going to need to have big games for Northwestern, on both sides of the ball, if they're going to pull off the upset?
INU: The Northwestern secondary is going to have to play well. They have more talent than they ever have, but they've underachieved at times this year. If they make some big plays, this game will stay close. Offensively, a lot of it falls on quarterback Trevor Siemian, but if they can get their tight ends involved, they have a chance to move the ball.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
INU: I'm thinking Penn State wins by 7-10 or so. It won't be a super high scoring game, so NU will hang around, but they won't have enough of an offense to win.
Thanks again, Kevin, and remember to check out InsideNU all season long to keep up-to-date with Northwestern--and tomorrow, to read my answers to Kevin's questions.