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Northwestern takes on No. 4 Penn State on Saturday at Ryan Field. What are the Wildcats' chances of pulling off the upset of the season?
Here's our take on the game and our fearless prediction.
Will Northwestern be able to run the ball?
This, more than anything else, will determine the outcome of the game. In two wins, the Wildcats ran for 178 (Nevada) and 327 (Bowling Green) yards. In two losses, those numbers were 66 (Duke) and 86 (Wisconsin). Northwestern simply cannot win without running the ball effectively. Without it, the passing game will falter, the offense will stagnate, the PSU defense will tee off on quarterback Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats won’t be able to keep the potent Nittany Lion offense off the field. That’s a recipe for a beatdown. How effective the Wildcats are on the ground will hinge on a couple things. The first is Justin Jackson, who has played hurt the last couple games. He said this week that he feels better than he has in quite some time, since before the injury. We’ll see if the “old” Ballcarrier shows up on Saturday. The other part of the equation is the offensive line, which turned in another subpar performance last week at Wisconsin. Unfortunately, Penn State owns the best defense the Wildcats have seen thus far: they are best in the Big Ten and third in the country in allowing just 9.4 points per game.
Can the offensive line protect Thorson?
Yes, Thorson held the ball too long on occasion last week against Wisconsin. Yes, there was no running game to slow the rush. But there is simply no excuse for allowing eight sacks in a game. Wisconsin matched its three-game total in sacks in one afternoon against Northwestern. The Wildcats have allowed 15 sacks on the season, the most in the Big Ten, for 120 yards in losses, 40 more than any other team in the league. Penn State watched that film, and you can bet that they will dial up some blitzes on passing downs, especially because they have very little fear of Northwestern’s wideouts beating them deep. We could see another feeding frenzy on No. 18.
Can the Wildcats bottle up Barkley?
Saquon Barkley just may be the best running back in the country – perhaps ever, says NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald. However, Northwestern may be able to neutralize him. Last week, the Wildcats held Wisconsin, the then-No. 1 rushing offense in the Big Ten, to just 126 yards, less than half of its average coming in. They also held Jonathan Taylor, the top runner in the league, to just 80 yards, 66 less than his average. Plus, Indiana stifled Barkley last week, allowing him just 65 yards on 20 carries. The challenge with Barkley, though, is consistency. All it takes is one missed fit and he can jet 80 yards for a touchdown faster than you can spell Igwebuike.
Will the Wildcats prevent big plays?
This is where Penn State has the advantage. While the Hoosiers bottled up Barkley’s running attack, he opened the game with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, had four catches for 51 yards and even threw a 16-yard touchdown pass. Plus, the Lions have Trace McSorley, the No. 1 passer in the Big Ten, and DaeSean Hamilton, PSU’s all-time leading receiver. (All-America tight end Mike Gesicki is hurt and may not play). Northwestern gave up three explosion plays in the passing game that changed the complex of last week’s loss to the Badgers; they simply cannot afford more communication lapses in the back half because Penn State can score in bunches. The goal will be to keep McSorley in the pocket, where his effectiveness has been questioned, and make him throw accurate balls. Then, in coverage, the Wildcats have to keep receivers in front of them and tackle very well.
Can Northwestern score enough?
Northwestern’s defense has a chance of keeping Penn State in check. Iowa held the Lions to 21 points despite being badly outgained, and Indiana did a decent job last week but got killed on special teams and with turnovers. The question, though, is whether Northwestern’s often anemic offense can put enough points on the board to win. Fitzgerald said this week that his biggest disappointment has been the running game, the offensive line has been his whipping boy all season, and wide receivers have been inconsistent. In short, there are a lot of concerns, and the Wildcats will have to put it together for four full quarters on the biggest stage of the season against probably the best defense they will play all year. That’s a tall order.
This has been an up-and-down and maddeningly inconsistent Northwestern team all season, but the Wildcats can legitimize themselves with a win over No. 4 Penn State at Ryan Field. It would be the signature win of the season, and probably Fitzgerald’s career so far.
The Wildcats may keep this one closer than most observers believe. But it’s just too much of a stretch to think that the Wildcats can cure all of their ills for 60 minutes on Saturday. The defense will uphold its end of the bargain, but the offense will sputter. And, in the end, Penn State makes a big play or two to escape with a win.
Pick: Penn State 31 Northwestern 20