Every time I make a prediction against Northwestern, be it basketball, football, or otherwise, I manage to jinx it. It's rather unfortunate, considering Northwestern isn't actually that good at most sports, typically. This year is different, as a great defense has made NU a legit ranked team, albeit one that might be a bit overrated after a great first game against Stanford. A decent offense lead by Clayton Thorson paired with it has Pat Fitzgerald's boys on the rise, as they're 6-2 with losses to Michigan and Iowa (it should be noted they got slaughtered in both games, however). This isn't your slightly older brother's Northwestern.
Last week, I got Illinois pretty much on point, or as close as anyone besides maybe the ever-consistent Eli did. So this week I'm gonna say this: I have no idea what the hell is gonna happen. Penn State, despite getting points in the spread, actually has better advanced numbers than Northwestern. Football Outsiders gives good explanations of what the numbers all mean in those links, but Penn State actually has a slight edge in this matchup by most accounts.
A 17.5% F/+ (40th nationally) compared to NW's 15.8% and a 10.8 S&P+ (29th nationally) to their 6.0 both make Penn State a seemingly smart risk here. However, Northwestern's .093 FEI is good for 36th, while Penn State's .054 is 50th. With the inconsistent offensive outputs by both teams buoyed by strong defenses, these numbers make sense. The one big thing to watch out for is Penn State's susceptibility to getting absolutely gashed by running QB's. If Bob Shoop can effectively deploy a linebacker to QB spy all day (hi, Troy Reeder) along with typically strong edge rushing, that can be countered. The offense will need to carry that momentum and mojo it picked up against the Illini last week and bring it with them. A balanced attack that gets the ball to Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin, and *GASP* our tight ends can get to most defenses. As usual, the line is a concern. They were somewhat passable last week despite a few hugely noticeable misses (aided by the fact that none of our running backs are especially good at pass blocking), and if they can keep up that standard of near-competence, Hack and Sa-Sa can do their thing. Also, Carl Nassib is an actual monster who eats quarterbacks, especially when they try to run near him.
In fact, you know what? Screw it. It's just Northwestern. Let's clinch that warm weather bowl and the first 8-win season since the magical 2012 squad.
Penn State 30 - Northwestern 10
bscaff: Get Barkley 5+ touches via outlets/screens. Take 5+ shots down field. Be balanced - don't call 46 passes vs 2 rushes. Stomp Justin Jackson. Keep Clayton Thorson in the pocket. Win the game. Get ranked.
Penn State 23 - Northwestern 13
Matt: Back in February, towards the end of a marathon recruiting podcast, Bill asked Nick and I for our ridiculously early thoughts on the 2015 season. During the discussion, I mentioned the Northwestern game jumped out to me as a potential loss. I was ridiculed for such a statement. Nine months later, not much as changed. After a 5-0 start, the Wildcats appeared headed for another disappointing finish with back to back blowouts against Iowa and Michigan. Instead they righted the ship, and got magic win #6 in Lincoln.
Northwestern's defense, ranked 18th nationally with just 17.6 points per game surrendered, will be the toughest the Lions have faced since at least Columbus, and perhaps back to Temple. That is especially true on the line, where PSU's bruised and battered offensive front will face a stiff test. I really want to pick PSU to win here, against a top-25 opponent, and possibly enter the rankings themselves at 8-2. I just do not see it. I expect a low scoring, sloppy game, with Penn State's offense just unable to do enough to get that W.
Northwestern 20 - Penn State 14
Dan: Penn State finally looks like they're starting to figure things out. The Illinois win wasn't just Penn State drubbing a weakened opponent, it was a Nittany Lion team finally embracing its strengths. Two weeks in a row, the Penn State offense has seen what the opposing defense was giving it, and has adjusted to attack what was left. Maryland and Illinois wanted to take the run game away, so Penn State made each of them pay with the passing game. The PSU defense is healthy and coming off a shutout. I have a good feeling about a game for basically the first time all season.
Penn State 24 - Northwestern 14
Eli: Earlier this year, someone predicted that this would be a guaranteed win for Northwestern. I've been waiting for this game since this day. Northwestern has a script they normally follow: They beat some teams they are supposed to, beat one or two teams they have no business competing with, then lose inexplicably to a team that on paper shouldn't even be in the same field as them. Sometimes, the former portion of this manifestation takes place early in the year, so we assume that This Is The Year™ (v. 10.1.24). It's kind of like their basketball team. Every year is the year, except for it's never the year.
Give credit to Northwestern, though. Since joining the Big Ten, Northwestern has given Penn State a few good games. In fact, they've even won some. They're up there with Purdue and Illinois in terms of record against us (since joining the Big Ten). Because of how well they've played us in the past, I'd expect this game to be interesting in the first quarter. But then Saquon Barkley, Christian Hackenberg, Chris Godwin, and the entire defense remembers that they're just Northwestern.
Penn State 56 - Northwestern 17
Tim: I realize I picked Northwestern in our B1G pick em contest but that was more out of desperation to catch up to the leaders (seriously, look at the standings - I'm riding the struggle bus) than a true indicator of how I think this game will go. No doubt, Northwestern's defense will pose a huge challenge, especially in the trenches. Not to mention, Clayton Thorson is the type of QB that has given PSU's defense fits all season long (see: mobile QB). Oh, and Northwestern's had an extra week to rest up and prepare for this game.
This PSU team however, appears to be hitting its stride at the right time, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Even more particularly, Christian Hackenberg. Look for another solid performance from Hack, especially now that he has Saquon Barkley to make Northwestern respect PSU's rushing attack, something the Wildcats didn't have to worry about during last year's Homecoming disaster. Carl Nassib will also break the single season sacks record while leading that Pat Fitzgerald-dubbed 'nightmare' of a D-line. These aforementioned factors are just enough for me to flip my pick on what I felt was a very likely Northwestern win just a few short weeks ago.
Penn State 20 - Northwestern 17
NCAA Football 14:
I accidentally knocked over my Xbox 360 while the game was in it midway through the second quarter of last week's simulation, and now the game is broken. However, a new one will be here Monday, so the simulation will return for Michigan.
FROM THE PODCAST:
Adam: Penn State 20 - Northwestern 13
Bill: Penn State 17 - Northwestern 6
Cari: Penn State 24 - Northwestern 17
Jared: Penn State 23 - Northwestern 13