NORTHWESTERN OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE Quarterback Clayton Thorson is the man who makes the Wildcats offense go, and will be player who the Nittany Lions must slow down to escape Evanston with a victory. Thorson has an average arm, connecting on 52.7 percent of passes on the season with a 5.51 yard per attempt average to go along with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Where he does most of his damage is on the ground. While Thorson may not be the most prolific of rushing quarterbacks, he has the ability to break off big chunks of yardage whenever he sees a lane. While the Wildcats do not utilize many designed quarterback runs, Thorson seems to have the green light to take off whenever he sees an opening from the pocket. He had by far his best rushing game of the season in the Wildcats most recent game against Nebraska (the Wildcats are coming off a bye week), where he racked up 126 yards and a touchdown on just nine attempts. Expect Thorson to play a larger role in the ground game on Saturday, especially considering the Nittany Lions recent struggles against more mobile quarterbacks.
Sophomore running back Justin Jackson got off to a fantastic start to the season with four 100-plus yard rushing games in the first five weeks before seeing his productivity greatly dip during the past three games. Jackson had just 95 yards and averaged just 2.7 yards against the likes of Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska. Jackson is effective out of the backfield, catching 17 passes for 127 yards on the season. The Nittany Lions defense will almost assuredly focus on bottling up Jackson and Thorson, and will be in great shape if they can force Thorson to try to beat them through the air.
Senior fullback Dan Vitale does not have a single carry in 2015, but leads the Wildcats in receiving with 23 catches for 276 yards and 3 touchdowns. Vitale knows how to find the holes in Penn State's defense- in 2014, he had a career day with 113 yards on seven catches against the Nittany Lions. Speedy junior Austin Carr is the Wildcats' best deep threat, but only has seven receptions on the season. Senior Christian Jones is back after missing all of 2014 with an injury. At 6-3 and 230 lbs., Jones is a big target who knows how to get open, and is an especially effective possession receiver. Penn State will need to pay special attention to him on third downs to get the Wildcats off the field.
Up front, Northwestern has a physical, veteran offensive line. While they may not be as easy to rattle, they will certainly have their hands full against Penn State's incredibly talented and deep defensive line that has a tremendous ability to completely wear down opposing lines by the second half.
NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE Northwestern has one of the top defenses the Nittany Lions will face in 2015, allowing a pretty measly 17.6 points per game (which would be even lower if not for some offensive and special teams woes). The Wildcats defense is solid throughout, but does an exceptionally great job against the pass. Behind a physical secondary, Northwestern ranks seventh in the nation in pass defense (164.8 yards per game) and third nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Sophomore middle linebacker Anthony Walker is the star of the Wildcats defense, and has the potential to be an All-American as an upperclassman, as well as the best defensive player to don a Northwestern uniform since head coach Pat Fitzgerald led the program's magical run in the mid-90s. Many Penn State fans have unhappy memories of Walker's coming out party last season against the Nittany Lions, which was capped off with a game-sealing pick-six early in the fourth quarter to quash any potential late-game heroics by Christian Hackenberg and company. He has continued to shine as a sophomore, with 67 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss thus far in the 2015 season. Safety Godwin Igwebuike does an excellent job in run support and is the team's second-leading tackler. The sophomore is also used frequently in different looks during blitzing situations to confuse opposing offensive lines.
Senior defensive end Dean Lowrey has a relentless motor and will likely add to his sack total on Saturday. Lowrey's counterpart, Deonte Gibson, is a disruptive force who regularly finds his way into the backfield. He leads Northwestern in sacks with 5.0 on the season, to go along with 5.5 negative hits.
The already-stout secondary will receive a major boost with the return of Matthew Harris after suffering bone fractures in his face (ouch) against Michigan on Oct. 12. Despite missing the last two games, he is the team leader in interceptions with three, and is second on the team with seven pass breakups.
Penn State's surging offense rose to the challenge against a tough Illinois defense, but will be in for an even greater challenge against a well-balanced Northwestern defense. The Nittany Lions offensive line will need to find a way to keep Hackenberg upright, a prospect that is boosted by the likely return of right tackle Andrew Nelson. As Hackenberg once again proved last week, he has the exceptional ability to scan the field and get the ball precisely where it needs to be when given an ample amount of time. During the Nittany Lions past two contests, the opposition opted to sell out in an attempt to limit Saquon Barkley's productivity on the ground and force Hackenberg to beat them through the air. The strategy didn't exactly pan out for either Maryland or Illinois, so it will be interesting to see Northwestern's gameplan coming into Saturday's contest.
SPECIAL TEAMS Junior kicker Jack Mitchell is practically automatic within the 40 but is two of five in the 40-49 yard range. He did boot a 49-yarder in the week one victory against Stanford, so he is capable of the deep ball at times. For the second consecutive week, Penn State manages to face a team that does an even poorer job of punting the football. Sophomore Hunter Niswander has a 38.2 yard average with a long of 56 on the season. Even if Penn State's punting woes rears its ugly head again on Saturday, the Nittany Lions shouldn't be at a tremendous disadvantage in terms of field position.
Penn State once again faces an explosive return man in sophomore Solomon Vault, who is averaging 26.3 yards per return. He also broke off a 98 yard return for a touchdown against Duke. Vault could be a huge X factor on Saturday considering Penn State's difficulties with kickoffs against Illinois. Senior Miles Shuler is a dangerous punt returner with a 12.8 yard average. Penn State's kick teams have fared well against some exceptional return men this season, and it will be especially crucial for them to remain disciplined and stay in their lanes against the Wildcats in what could be a close, low-scoring affair.
Penn State's placekicker competition is in a bit of a state of turmoil following Joey Julius' worst game of the season. Julius had two extra points blocked after extremely low kicks, and had an early kickoff sail out of bounds well short of the end zone. Sophomore Tyler Davis performed well in relief, but also had a kickoff that went out of bounds just before reaching the end zone. Davis might see more action depending on Julius' ability to bounce back from a poor outing. Punter Daniel Pasquariello has finally found some consistency in the past two weeks after two up-and-down seasons. It will be crucial for him to continue to perform after several dips in productivity throughout his career.
PENN STATE-23 NORTHWESTERN-13 I have counted this game as a loss for most of the season, but seeing these teams trend in different directions the past couple weeks has me believing the Nittany Lions will pull out a 'W' against a tough Northwestern team.
The Wildcats have a tough and physical defense that would have stifled Penn State's offense earlier in the season, but the Nittany Lions offense is surging with a well-balanced attack that can keep the Wildcats on their toes- or at the very least, find enough scoring opportunities to not waste another outstanding effort by the defense.
The offense doesn't light up the scoreboard, but is effective enough to get the job done against a very tough defense. Saquon Barkley hits paydirt twice, while Hackenberg goes for 215 yards and extends his efficient play with several key third-down conversions through the air. The defense has another big day, led by Brandon Bell with 14 tackles and key forced fumble, while Austin Johnson contributes a sack and four tackles for loss.