Blue White Illustrated's staff makes its picks as the Nittany Lions get set to tangle with Indiana this weekend at Beaver Stadium. Who do we think has the edge? Learn more, here!
Nate Bauer - Blue White Illustrated Editor (2017 Record: 5-0)
Penn State's last visit to Northwestern was a loss for the Nittany Lions, a stomach-punch of a game in which the visitors managed to take a 21-20 fourth-quarter lead only to see it evaporate on a 35-yard Wildcat field goal with nine-seconds to play. While that memory may elicit some consternation among Penn State fans entering this weekend's contest, it shouldn't.
That game, and many like it, are a distant past for the 2017 Nittany Lions.
Even for a stuttering, start/stop Penn State offense, the Wildcat defense is unlikely to be able to shut it down with the consistency it will need to create what I consider the most important element to a possible Northwestern upset: A low-scoring game.
Northwestern's best offensive asset, it's passing game, meshes well with the Lions' defensive strengths in creating havoc up front and a ball-hawking secondary. And if Northwestern isn’t able to put up a number in at least the high 20s or low 30s against a Penn State defense that has so far been outstanding, then the challenge gets even tougher.
Simply, Penn State's avenues toward topping Northwestern are far more numerous than the Wildcats' road to a win. For that reason, regardless of the road-game environment or the early start, I’ve got the Lions moving to 6-0.
Penn State 37
Tim Owen - Blue White Illustrated Assistant Editor (2017 Record: 5-0)
An 11 a.m. local-time kickoff in quiet ol' Evanston, this was one of five games that I had highlighted on the schedule to begin the season as a potential setback. Since then, I've grown more confident in a PSU win, but this weekend’s weather forecast gives me another pause.
This game is not going to be a gimme, I’m fairly certain of that, as a slow start at Northwestern almost seems like a routine for many opponents. On paper, though, the Wildcats fit into PSU's strengths. Justin Jackson is a good back but so far his run game has underachieved and if it tries to finesse this Penn State defense, I don’t see it being a formula for long-term success. On offense QB Clayton Thorson is talented and has to be considered a threat. Thing is, PSU's secondary is one of its main strengths. If the defensive line can create pressure – Thorson was sacked eight times last week at Wisconsin – turnovers will be presented as Thorson averages more than one interception per game. The trick for PSU will be avoiding them itself on offense and special teams.
When it comes to turnover margin, Penn State ranks as one of the best five teams in the country, as it has taken the ball away 16 time and lost it only 5. It hasn’t been a problem so far, but with questionable weather near the Windy City, I could see the aforementioned numbers start to balance out some. If that occurs, it’ll make this a closer game than what many might have expected. At the beginning of the season, though, I had this shadowed as trap game. I still sense a slower start, but I just can’t see PSU losing to the Wildcats right now. Not with Saquon Barkley at the helm, anyhow.
I could see the turnover battle being close, maybe even going in NW’s favor, but I think the ultimate difference will come down to which running back finds more success. Since the Wildcats have been held to or below 25 yards on the ground during two occasions already this season, and since the Nittany Lions have, well, you know who, then I can't pick the upset this week.
Penn State 24
Ryan Snyder - Blue White Illustrated Recruiting Analyst (2017 Record: 5-0)
Penn State heads to Evanston on Saturday to face a Northwestern squad that’s won two straight against the Lions. The most recent matchup, which took place in 2015, saw the Wildcats kick a 35-yard field goal with just nine seconds left to pull out a 23-21 win. Penn State ended up losing the following two games to Michigan and Michigan State, finishing the season 7-5.
While that game may have been played two seasons ago, this squad hasn’t forgot about what that defeat did for its season, so I expect the Lions to come out strong in the first half. As of now, it doesn’t look as if it’ll be raining as hard as it looked earlier in the week, but the forecast is calling for 20+ mph winds, so I expect to see a steady dose of RB Saquon Barkley. The Wildcats currently rank 11th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 145 yards per game. They’ve also struggled against the run-pass option, so that sets up well for the Nittany Lions.
On offense, Northwestern’s rushing game has also struggled through its four games, as the Wildcats are currently second-to-last in the Big Ten. RB Justin Jackson isn’t 100 percent right now, so as long as the Lions are able to get off to a fast start, that’ll force Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson to throw in some poor conditions. Looks for the Lions to force at least two turnovers.
The weather will keep Penn State’s offense from scoring more than 40 points, but I still expect the Lions to win by at least two scores.
Penn State - 35
Northwestern - 21