Game Preview


Penn State
Beaver Stadium
Saturday, November 6, 2:30 pm CST
TV: ABC (Regional.  ESPN2 Alternate)
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Penn St.
by Jonathan Hodges

After earning bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season, the Northwestern Wildcats (6-2, 2-2) continue a tough road swing by traveling to Happy Valley to face the Penn State Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2) in a matchup that will go a long way towards deciding the Big Ten bowl pecking order in 2010.  PSU has rebounded from consecutive losses to begin conference play by knocking off Minnesota and Michigan in consecutive weeks, while the 'Cats broke their own two game slide by winning at Indiana last week.  There's a lot to break down in this pivotal November game, so let's begin.

Both teams come in with their quarterbacks listed as probable due to concussions: PSU's Robert Bolden was dinged up in the first half against Minnesota two weeks ago and is expected to be back in this game while NU's Dan Persa got knocked out in the fourth quarter at Indiana but Coach Fitz "fully expects" him to play on Saturday.  Penn State backup Matt McGloin performed well in backup duty (tossing 3 TDs over that span) and may spur something of a quarterback controversy between these two young players.  In any case, both teams should have their primary QB available for this game.

It will also be interesting to see if both teams can continue the success on the ground that they both found in their most recent games: NU ran for 155 against Indiana (including 110 on the ground from Mike Trumpy) while PSU ran for 185 versus Michigan (with 150 from Evan Royster).  Both teams have had their share of issues running the ball this season and would love to keep the momentum going in order to field more balanced and, therefore, more dangerous offensive attacks.

On the other side of the ball, both teams also field respectable defenses who have taken their lumps in some games while coming up big in others.  Northwestern ranks 34th nationally in scoring defense (allowing 20.3 points per game) and PSU ranks 29th (averaging 20.0 ppg), although the 'Cats rank 66th nationally in total defense while the Lions rank 68th in rushing defense.  PSU have had a slew of injuries on that side of the ball and have had issues creating turnovers, while the 'Cats haven't been able to shut down opponents' passing games, allowing over 300 yards through the air in each of the last two weeks.

The biggest dichotomy of this game is team discipline: Penn State has been called for the fewest number of penalties per game, while the 'Cats rank 98th nationally in that category.  PSU's disciplined play has prevented the types of mishaps that the 'Cats have experienced over most of this season (e.g. Central Michigan's fourth quarter comeback attempt and Minnesota holding a lead late in the fourth quarter).  Coach Fitz has seemingly dedicated himself to fixing this issue; hopefully now that NU has established a semblance of a running game they can address the discipline problems on the field.

Now, onto the storylines.  First and foremost, PSU head coach Joe Paterno is going for win number 400.  He earned Bear Bryant tying win number 323 against NU back in 2001 (a 35-31 Penn State win in Evanston) and will be seeking another milestone victory against the 'Cats here.  NU QB Dan Persa will be heading back to his home state for likely the only time in his collegiate career, a place where he set numerous records in high school.  Coach Fitz will be trying to establish his own legacy, already tied for 6th on the NU head coach all-time wins list and just 2 away from his mentor, Gary Barnett.  And this will all go down starting at 3:30 PM ET on ABC.

This should prove to be quite an intriguing matchup between two teams that bring in many interesting storylines who are also fighting for all-important bowl position.  It's Fitz vs. JoePa.  Both teams want and need a W and it should be quite an intense matchup in front of an always electric crowd at Beaver Stadium.

Opening Line

Penn State by 6.5.

Who Should Win

The Nittany Lions.  It's a late afternoon kickoff with Joe Paterno going for win number 400 in Happy Valley.  After last week's dominant win over Michigan, Penn State is looking a lot stronger than they did earlier this season and, despite injuries at multiple positions, have guys who can step in and get the job done.  Their defense is still very tough, they are the least penalized team in the nation, averaging just 3.25 penalties per game, and have a kicker who is averaging 2.0 field goals per game with an 84.2% success rate.  As long as they continue their disciplined play and dictate the tempo of the game, they will be very difficult to beat.

Upset Factor

The Wildcats finally seem to have their ground game going, with Trumpy exceeding 100 yards rushing last week, and do-everything QB Dan Persa will be good to go come Saturday as well.  PSU's defense has been vulnerable at time and is in the bottom half nationally in pass efficiency defense (somewhat thanks to some patchwork both in the secondary and on the DL), which is something Persa is surely looking forward to exploiting.  And on defense, NU has done very well, especially when generating turnovers, an area where PSU is vulnerable (ranking 78th nationally, having thrown 9 interceptions on the year).  Yes, NU will have to put together a full 60 minutes of solid football, but they are more than capable of pulling off a win here.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Penn State Defense

As mentioned multiple times in this preview, NU QB Dan Persa is fully expected to play for the 'Cats, which is, of course, a very good thing as he has accounted for 72.8% of Northwestern's total offense and 72.0% of the 'Cats' offensive TDs.  Despite the fact that an NU running back finally gained over 100 yards on the ground in a game, Persa remains the Wildcat rushing leader on the year, and that's even with his sack yardage included.  Persa is still a very efficient (162.7 passing efficiency, 9th nationally) and accurate (74.4% completion rate, 2nd nationally) passer and can make all kinds of plays with his feet, including the ability to avoid pressure in the backfield (both TDs against Indiana as well as a long pass that set up a FG came thanks to his elusiveness).

Another nice mid-season discovery is that Mike Trumpy provides a nice complement to Persa on the ground: he's averaging a respectable 4.1 yards per carry and is clearly NU's top option at RB.  If Northwestern has an opportunity to get another ball carrier over 100 yards, things will be very good for the 'Cats.  Interestingly, Penn State's run defense hasn't been all that great this year, as they rank 68th nationally allowing 155.0 yards per game on the ground (4.2 yards per carry).  This definitely opens an opportunity for NU to get that desired balanced offensive attack going, which would be extremely beneficial to NU's cause.

Penn State's pass defense numbers are a bit deceptive: although they rank 24th in pass yardage allowed (188.1 yards per game), they rank 72nd in passing efficiency defense (128.5), mostly thanks to the fact that they have just 7 interceptions on the year and have allowed 11 passing TDs (one more than the 'Cats).  Their secondary includes some less experienced players thanks to injury, including a cornerback converted from wide receiver (Chaz Powell, who caught 5 passes against NU last year).  They have done alright, but remain vulnerable.

Another significant issue for the Nittany Lion defense has been the pass rush (or lack thereof): PSU ranks 107th nationally in sacks (1.1 per game) and has tallied just 1 QB hurry on the year (NU has tallied 30, although it's worth acknowledging that not all game statisticians keep track of this number).  PSU does get a boost by getting DE Jack Crawford back from injury (he's listed as probable), but even with him in the fray they haven't been able to get much pressure up front.  Northwestern has given up a lot of sacks (NU ranks 113th in sacks allowed with an average of 3.4 per game), and they must work to continue PSU's pass rush woes in order to help out Persa.

Penn State also continues their tradition of linebacker development after replacing three star LBs from last year.  Chris Colasanti leads the team in tackles (72) and tackles for loss (6) and has done a great job holding down the middle of the field.  The outside linebackers also do their jobs well, including Michael Mauti who ranks second on the team in tackles (49).  The NU offensive line must get to their LB blocks quickly in order to give their backs a chance to gain some yardage.

While PSU fields a generally solid defense, there are definitely more holes than a prototypical Penn State defense, and the 'Cats should be able to take advantage.  If NU can keep the ground game going while also avoiding costly turnovers, they will almost definitely put themselves in a position to win the game.  Finally, whether he says it or not, Persa wants to win this game, as it will likely be his only trip back to his home state, and he has the skills to make a big difference if he really turns it on.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Penn State Offense

This looks to be the most intriguing matchup of the game, as the Wildcat defense has played fairly well this year but has been burned by explosion plays (against Purdue in particular) and a spot-on passing performance (by MSU's Kirk Cousins).  Overall, though, they have executed their scheme pretty well, including the aforementioned Michigan State game where they were able to bottle up the Spartans' run game and force them to pass the ball.  Expect a very similar strategy to be employed against Penn State this Saturday.

Shutting down the ground game is essential to beating Penn State.  PSU lost both games this season in which they failed to reach 100 yards on the ground (against Iowa and Illinois), they have lost 3 of 4 games where they have been outrushed, and over his career they are 14-0 when Evan Royster gains 100 yards or more on the ground.  A lot has to do with the fact that both quarterbacks lack experience and routinely miss their targets: Bolden's completion percentage is 58.2 and McGloin's is 56.1 (both paling in comparison to Persa's, of course).

Also, if the 'Cats take away the ground threat they will prevent PSU from utilizing a key weapon: the play action pass, which they use to go deep.  Derek Moye is clearly the biggest receiving threat as he leads the team in receptions, with 28, and sports an impressive 18.9 yards per reception average.  They have other weapons at WR, including the experienced Brett Brackett and short but speedy Devon Smith (who also has 9 carries on the season).  Although the receivers are dangerous, if NU forces PSU into a throwing mode and can play at least decent coverage, they will put themselves in a good spot.

It's also worth noting that in their 3 losses this year, PSU is averaging just 6.3 points per game.  Those also happen to be the games where they faced the most competent defenses.  The defenses they've faced in their 5 wins hardly inspire any confidence (their most recent opponents, Michigan and Minnesota, are particularly inept).  This also goes to show that if the Wildcats can bottle up the PSU offense, things could really tip in NU's favor.

Coming full circle, they key will be shutting down the ground game, and that will mostly rely on NU's big guys up front.  DTs Jack DiNardo and Corbin Bryant will have to have some big plays, and the slew of DEs will have to get pressure in the backfield when the Penn State QB does drop back.  Generating initial pressure up front is key; Michigan was not able to do so last week and the result (41 points allowed) wasn't pretty.  Following that, the linebackers must fit in well, which they didn't do at times earlier in the year (particularly on two explosion plays allowed to Purdue), but they seem to have settled down since then.  Bryce McNaul finally getting healthy and taking over one of the outside LB spots has certainly helped there; hopefully he will progress even further.

Despite not getting any sacks against Indiana last week, NU did get some pressure on the QB, forcing errant throws all day long (Ben Chappell completed just over 50% of his passes, well below his season average).  Not only do the 'Cats need to continue this, but they also need to take advantage by generating turnovers, which has been lacking over the past 4 games (during which time the NU D only has 4 total takeaways).  NU will have its chances to intercept the ball, and the defensive backs must capitalize in order to give the 'Cats the momentum shift they'll need to win in this tough road environment.

It won't be easy, but the Northwestern defense is certainly capable of handling the Penn State offense, and they've even already executed the strategy they'll need to do so (against Michigan State).  Turnovers would really help the 'Cats, and as NU fans know, turnovers come in bunches (reference the second quarter of the 2009 Purdue game), and a bunch here wouldn't hurt.  This battle of the units will likely go a long way in determining the winner of this game.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Penn State, as one would expect, has rather solid special teams play.  Their kicker, Collin Wagner, has been impressive in this, his senior year, hitting 84.2% of his FGs and all 18 XPs.  This would seem to favor PSU heavily, although NU K Stefan Demos has seemingly outdueled his placekicking protege in each of the last 2 weeks, going 4-of-4 on FGs during that span with opponents going just 1-of-3.  So, don't discount Demos.

PSU is very solid in net punting (ranking 18th nationally at 39.4 yards) thanks in part to the 26th best punt return defense.  P Anthony Fera also averages 41.6 yards per punt and has kicked 7 punts of over 50 yards.  Thankfully, Northwestern continues to do well in that same category, ranking 42nd in net punting (37.6 yard average), while Brandon Williams is averaging 39.6 yards per punt and has stuck 16 of them inside the 20 yard line.  The 'Cats rank 11th nationally in punt return defense and have allowed just 8 punts to actually be returned this season.  Neither team is particularly impressive on punt returns: PSU ranks 68th nationally and NU ranks 72nd.  Both teams have compact but very quick weapons available on punt returns (Venric Mark for NU, Devon Smith for PSU) but overall discipline in the kicking game will likely prevent many return chances.

Northwestern must be wary of PSU's kick returners, though, as they rank 14th nationally at 25.5 yards per return, with Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green both averaging well over 20 yards per return (Powell also has a kick return for TD).  The 'Cats, meanwhile are a middle of the road 61st at 21.6 yards per return, although Venric Mark has been garnering more and more time back there and he always presents a threat to take it all the way.  Both teams are respectable in coverage, with NU ranking 29th nationally and PSU ranking 41st.

The potential is definitely there for a momentum-shifting play on special teams, although both teams have solid coverage units that have generally prevented such plays.  With Mark back there now as the primary NU return man, it seems like the 'Cats are closer to a big return than they have been in a while; such a play would certainly help NU's cause in this one.

Miscellaneous Notes

Bowl Positioning

Getting to 7 wins will be key for Northwestern's final bowl position as it would help keep the 'Cats above any teams who sneak in with a 6-6 record (although this is dependent on some of the current bowl contracts), who may include Michigan, Purdue, and (possibly, but not likely) Indiana.  Also, this game may be one of the easiest left on NU's slate with Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin left: they have a combined record of 18-6.

Points off Turnovers

The Wildcats have seen an almost complete reversal of fortune when it comes to turnovers between the first and middle thirds of this season:

First 4 games (4-0, 120-62 scoring margin): 12 turnovers gained, 53 points off turnovers
Middle 4 games (2-2, 93-100 scoring margin): 4 turnovers gained, 0 points off turnovers

Also, the 'Cats are 4-0 when winning the turnover battle (including last week's win at Indiana where NU had 0 turnovers lost for the first time this season).  Penn State, meanwhile, doesn't have as clear of a correlation, going 1-1 this year when winning the turnover battle (they are also 2-1 when losing it and 2-1 when tied).  Like NU, PSU avoided losing a turnover in their most recent game.

Third Down Conversions

This game will also feature an interesting matchup on third downs.  Northwestern still ranks near the top nationally (12th) in third down conversion rate (50.8%) and are tied for 2nd nationally in terms of the absolute number of third down conversions on the season (63).  Penn State hasn't fared nearly as well on offense, converting 40.5% of their third downs, good for 52nd nationally.

On the other side of the ball, though, both have stifling third down defenses and rank near the top nationally.  The 'Cats rank 11th (31.5% allowed rate) while PSU is 3rd (28.3%).  The matchup of the day will likely be NU on third down against the Penn State defense: something has to give.


Most of Penn State's primary running back's yards have come in two great performances (187 versus Kent State and 150 last week against Michigan).  Other than that, he has eclipsed 50 just once (at Iowa).  Not coincidentally, his two top performances were the only times this season that he's topped 20 carries; outside of those games he is averaging just 10.3 carries per game.  A Northwestern goal should definitely be to limit PSU's need to hand thim the ball more than 10 or so times (in other words, completely contain him early and/or take an early lead and sustain that lead).

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), OL Evan Luxenburg (knee, doubtful), RB Scott Concannon (groin, questionable), RB Jacob Schmidt (ankle, questionable), QB Dan Persa (concussion, probable).

First off, Persa looks to be okay after suffering a concussion (not a rib injury, which was an apparent attempt at deception during the Big Ten Network broadcast on Saturday) as he has gone through the post-concussion tests and seems okay; Coach Fitz said he's expected to be full go at practice this week and he "fully" expects him to play on Saturday.  Thankfully this looks like it won't be the third consecutive season featuring a Northwestern backup quarterback being forced into spot duty due to an injury (Mike Kafka started two games in 2008 in place of CJ Bacher, and Persa started one in place of Kafka last season).

Otherwise, NU has continued to fare well on the injury report, which will certainly help the 'Cats' cause down the stretch.  The most significant remaining injuries are to Concannon and Schmidt, who are both down on the depth chart thanks to recent success achieved by starter Mike Trumpy and cohort Adonis Smith (not to mention Arby Fields, who even had a few carries last week).  Schmidt was apparently available in case of emergency, so he's working his way back and could be a boost in certain situations where his blocking and receiving skills can be utilized.

Penn State

FS Nick Sukay (pectoral, out for season), TE Andrew Szczerba (back, out for season), TE Garry Gilliam (knee, out for season), OL Lou Eliades (knee, out for season), WR Curtis Drake (leg, out), DL Eric Latimore (wrist, out), DE Jack Crawford (foot, probable), QB Robert Bolden (concussion, probable), RB Brandon Beachum (knee, out), S Andrew Dailey (neck/shoulder, probable), OL Johnnie Troutman (leg, probable).

On the other side of the injury spectrum lies Penn State, who has been pretty much decimated by injury all over the field, but especially on defense.  They've lost their top two tight ends as well an anticipated starting WR.

The most noticeable injury is that to true freshman Robert Bolden, who was the starter until he was concussed at Minnesota two games ago.  Walk-on Matt McGloin has stepped in admirably since then, albeit against rather porous defenses, and may remain their best option on Saturday.  Bolden was apparently cleared to play last Saturday, and is listed as probable for this game so will likely come back, although McGloin may warrant playing time due to his performance thus far; we'll see what happens on Saturday.

On defense, PSU gets Crawford back on the end of the line to help out, although they're still down a key player in the secondary (Sukay) and have another dinged up (Dailey, who is listed as probable).  The 'Cats will definitely have a chance to challenge PSU's depth, although the Nittany Lions have shown the ability to weather the storm enough to get 5 wins so far this season.


Northwestern 23, Penn State 20

Once again, I'm going against my preseason prediction to pick the 'Cats.  The defense looks like it can handle the Penn State offense, while the NU offense should be able to move the ball, especially with a newfound ground game and Persa looking for a win in his personal homecoming.  This one should be a close game no matter which way it goes and it likely won't be nearly as high scoring as last week's game in Happy Valley.

Fitz has shown that he can get his team to perform on the road and also in November, and this game meets both criteria.  Persa is healthy and ready to play.  PSU may be a bit too confident after beating a Michigan team that has no defense whatsoever.

If that doesn't give fans a reason to watch, there are multiple other storylines in play, and this should be a great contest that should actually rival some of the higher profile matchups that will also be in progress late Saturday afternoon.  Now, time to anxiously await kickoff.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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