Penn State looks to remain undefeated and become bowl eligible heading into the bye week.
(4) Penn State (5-0, 2-0) vs. Northwestern (2-2, 0-1)
Kickoff: Noon, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
The Betting Line: Penn State -14.5
TV: ABC- Steve Levy (play-by-play), Brian Griese (analyst), Todd McShay (sideline)
Weather: A chance of showers in the morning that should clear up by kickoff, with temps in the mid-60s.
PENN STATE RECORD: 30-15, 4th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 54-30, 7th Year
VS. NORTHWESTERN: 0-3
NORTHWESTERN RECORD: 79-64, 12th Year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PENN STATE: 2-5
NOW THE FUN PART....
NORTHWESTERN OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Penn State’s defense will be tasked with stopping the most explosive backfield on its schedule for the first half of the season. However, the Wildcats duo of quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson have not met the lofty expectations set heading into season.
Jackson was the most hyped Wildcat heading into 2017, with some pundits suggesting he was the top running back in the Big Ten- yes, ahead of Saquon Barkley. While Jackson has gone for more than 100 yards rushing in the Wildcats two wins against Nevada and Bowling Green, he has struggled against the two Power 5 defenses he’s faced this fall. Against Duke and Wisconsin, Jackson has just 43 combined rushing yards, with an average of 2.69 yards per carry. Jackson can be incredibly dangerous at times, but his offensive line has not been doing him many favors. Northwestern may also have a star-in-the-making in speedy freshman Jeremy Larkin, who regularly comes in to spell Jackson.
Thorson is having a similar season- he looked great against the lesser opponents, but struggled against Duke and Wisconsin. While Thorson is coming off a respectable outing against the Badgers, he had an especially terrible performance against Duke- completing just 11 of 29 attempts for 120 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Penn State has mostly faced off against tall, dropback quarterbacks this season. That will change on Saturday, as Thorson has some serious scrambling ability when he sees a lane ahead. However, he does not have the best pocket presence and can be prone to sacks. He has already been sacked 15 times in four games on the season. The Nittany Lions will likely offer varied looks to apply pressure from different areas, but don’t expect them to get too blitz-crazy since Thorson could create some big plays with his legs, just as he did in 2015.
The Wildcats do not have a go-to receiver, which can make them tougher to defend since Thorson is adept at spreading the ball around. Tight end Garrett Dickerson is the team’s leading receiver with 18 receptions for 214 yards. However, that is a bit misleading since his season numbers are inflated by a nine catch, 150 yard performance against a terrible Bowling Green defense. Sophomore Bennett Skowronek is a lanky receiver in the mold of Juwan Johnson who can use his size to create match-up problems. Junior Flynn Nagel is effective coming out of the slot, and had five catches for 52 yards against Wisconsin last week. Jackson is a skilled receiver out of the backfield, accumulating 13 catches for 103 yards on the season.
NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE VS. PENN STATE OFFENSE
Despite Penn State’s hot start to the season and Saquon Barkley’s ascension to the top of the Heisman shortlist, there has been plenty of hand-wringing about the play of the offensive line. This is with good reason, as they have again struggled to open up holes for Barkley and the rest of a talented group of running backs. These concerns have intensified after Indiana shut down Penn State’s rushing attack for the second season in a row. The Hoosiers held Penn State to just 1.1 yards per carry with a long of just eight yards on the day. Even if you remove Trace McSorley’s -19 rushing yards, it still just comes to just 2.77 yards per attempt. Even worse, the Hoosiers were ranked 96th nationally in rushing defense heading into the contest. The Wildcats are giving up 145 yards rushing per game, good for 65th in the nation, so it will be a good barometer if Penn State can get things moving or struggle on the ground once again. Sure, teams are selling out to slow down Barkley, but improvements are obviously needed.
Penn State may be able to get by Northwestern with another poor performance on the ground, but they likely won’t be as lucky moving forward. After Saturday’s contest with Northwestern and a bye week, the Nittany Lions will face three of the best front sevens in the nation in consecutive weeks against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. Saturday will be the last chance for tweaks and improvements before opponents stop being polite, and start getting real.
As far as Northwestern’s defense goes, Paddy Fisher took over for the exceptional Anthony Walker at middle linebacker and has picked up right where he left off the the biggest playmaker on the Wildcats defense. On the season he has 37 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Montre Hartage is a standout at corner who will look to shut down Juwan Johnson or DaeSean Hamilton. He also does an exceptional job in run support. Godwin Igwebuike is an enforcer at safety who can shut down his portion of the field, and kept the Wildcats in the game with an interception against Wisconsin last week.
The Wildcats rely on freshman kicker Charlie Kuhbander, who is off to a strong start connecting on three of four field goal attempts, with a long of 40 yards. He has made all 15 extra point attempts. Hunter Niswander (aka “Hunter the Punter”) is back for his third season as the starter, and is off to his best season yet. He is currently averaging an impressive 45.7 yards per punt with a long of 59. Based on the way Northwestern’s offense have performed against the tougher defenses on their schedule, Niswander could have a busy day on Saturday.
Northwestern does not offer much in terms of a return game. Its punt return productivity is practically non-existent, and running back John Moten IV is the primary kick returner, averaging 16.8 yards per return with a long of 27.
Penn State’s special teams have been phenomenal nearly across the board in 2017, with the exception of the field goal unit that has been downright atrocious. From poor blocking, to bad snaps and holds, to missed chip shots, the field goal unit needs to improve quickly before it costs the Nittany Lions a tight contest.
Penn State- 38 Northwestern- 17
As Patrick Koerbler astutely stated in the most recent Big Ten Power Rankings, “Northwestern is weird.” The Wildcats were supposed to be among the favorites to claim the Big Ten West Division heading into 2017, but have mostly looked like a team that will be at home during the bowl season. They claimed victories against two “Other 5” opponents and were absolutely dismantled by Duke. However, they did give a top-10 Wisconsin squad a tough time this past week, so perhaps they are starting to figure things out.
Despite the talents of Thorson and Jackson, Northwestern’s offense has really struggled. Considering the play of Penn State’s defense that has absolutely exceeded expectations, the Wildcats should struggle to put up enough points to keep pace with the Nittany Lions. They may be able to keep it close for a bit, but Penn State should have the firepower to pull ahead and win comfortably.
Jason Cabinda again leads the charge on defense with a 15-tackle performance that also includes a forced fumble, while Curtis Cothran joins the party with three TFLs and a fumble recovery. On offense, McSorley has another 300-plus yard day through the air and hits Juwan Johnson on two touchdown strikes.