Game Preview


Penn State
Ryan Field
Saturday, October 22, 2011, 6:00 pm CDT
WIND 560 AM Chicago Radio 

Game Preview: Penn State
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (2-4, 0-3) will play their third consecutive night game, this time in front of a homecoming crowd at Ryan Field against the No. 21 (BCS) Penn State Nittany Lions (6-1, 3-0) who have pushed their way to bowl eligibility and a ranking in the initial BCS standings with a particularly stout defense and a schizophrenic offense that has done just enough to get over the hump in all but one game (a not-so-embarrassing 27-11 loss to No. 2 Alabama). The 'Cats know that they have their backs against the wall in terms of bowl eligibility, and this is a prime opportunity to end their current four game losing streak and put six wins back within reach. PSU, on the other hand, will be looking to lock down on defense yet again and use some talented skill players on offense to make the difference much like in last year's come-from-behind win.

Once again, the Fitz/Paterno coaching dichotomy will be on full display, along with the latter going for yet another milestone victory (more on that later). Another storyline will of course be NU QB Dan Persa trying to notch a win against his home state's big school after putting in valiant efforts the prior two meetings but coming up short. The media will be honing in on these stories, the fans will be energized by the night game atmosphere, and it should be a great night of football and will most likely yield an excitingly close game much like these teams' previous meetings in Evanston.

Opening Line

Penn State by 3.

Who Should Win

Penn State. Even though the 'Cats will have a homecoming night game crowd on their side and PSU has a spotty (at best) offense, the fact is that the Nittany Lion defense is just plain good enough to win games on its own: they rank 6th nationally in both total defense and scoring defense (7th in pass defense and 3rd in pass efficiency defense), they have playmakers all over the field (including a bevy of upperclassmen in the secondary, a usually-solid linebacking corps, and a dangerous pass rusher up front), and are ranked 10th nationally in turnovers gained (with 17 on the year). Given that, the 'Cats will likely have trouble matching their 30.0 point per game average through their first three Big Ten contests, while we all know the NU defense is good to give up at least a couple explosion plays for touchdowns. Therefore, the 'Cats appear to be in a tough spot even though they are facing the nation's 96th ranked scoring offense and a team that needed a late fourth quarter fourth down TD run to beat Temple.

Upset Factor

As mentioned above, the PSU offense is pretty bad, even with some solid playmakers at the skill positions (Silas Redd at RB, Justin Brown at WR just to name a couple). The key, of course, is inconsistent-to-bad QB play in their current ill-conceived 2 QB scheme. If the Northwestern pass defense wants to turn things around, this is the perfect opportunity: on the year, PSU QBs are completing barely over 50% of their passes and have 6:6 TD:INT ratio. The ground game is picking up for PSU, but Northwestern has managed to contain opponents' run games for much of the year (allowing 4.1 yards per carry when 2 explosion runs from early in the year are removed). And, on the other side of the ball, PSU has a good defense but hasn't faced any formidable offensive attack outside of Alabama (to whom they allowed 27 points); Northwestern has a higher total offense rank than any of Penn State's FBS opponents thus far (NU ranks 52nd nationally with 405.3 yards per game). Plus, NU is coming off of an impressive offensive performance on the road, nonetheless, and Dan Persa will be salivating to get a win against his home state's football power. Finally, it's a home night game in Evanston and will likely be the toughest environment PSU has played in so far (they had a trip to Philly to face Temple that included plenty of PSU fans and a day trip to face Indiana).

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

This is clearly a strength vs. strength matchup: the Northwestern offense has been rather good this year, particularly with Persa back at the helm and hasn't missed a beat even when swapping in Kain Colter. Although they have turned to the air to move the ball with Persa's accurate arm back in tow (he's completing an impressive 74.2% of his passes this year and is averaging 232.0 yards per game passing in his three games back), Colter has been contributing to the offense in multiple ways and leads the 'Cats in total offense on the season. The Wildcats have numerous weapons at wide receiver and a couple of running backs who have been joining with Colter to yield a respectable attack (ranked 40th nationally at 181.8 yards per game). They have shown that they can score against Big Ten competition (30.0 points per game) and, as mentioned earlier, are statistically the best offense that PSU has faced so far this year.

But, don't expect the 'Cats to move the ball with ease against a formidable defense: the Nittany Lions are just flat out impressive. They contain the run (22nd nationally in yards per game and hold opponents to 3.6 yards per carry after accounting for sacks), flat out stop the pass (opposing completion rate is just 50.9% with 4 TDs to a whopping 11 INTs), and just make plays (7.14 TFLs per game, 17 takeaways on the season). Although they lost their senior MLB Mike Mauti for the year with a knee injury, they haven't really missed a beat thanks to a pair of very tough OLBs Gerald Hodges (no relation) and Nate Stupar. Up front, they have a very dangerous weapon in senior Devon Still (leads PSU with 10 TFLs). And, in the secondary (which is looks like an NFL secondary compared to NU's unit), the Nittany Lions are staring four seniors who have combined for 6 INTs and 12 PBUs so far. Overall, the unit is starting 8 seniors and the only underclassman is Mauti's replacement at MLB (sophomore Glenn Carson, who is tied for second on the team in tackles despite not starting the full year).

The Wildcats do stand a chance, though, as teams have been able to move the ball at times on the ground (Purdue racked up 166 yards on the ground last week accounting for sacks), and NU presents a balanced spread attack that PSU hasn't really dealt with this season. And although it will be tough for Persa to replicate what he did on the ground in his previous two games against PSU, he is certainly the best passer the Nittany Lions have faced all year and the Wildcats should be able to move the ball enough to get some points on the board. The key for NU will be to limit costly mistakes like they had last week (e.g. red zone INT returned for TD, missed field goal, negative plays pushing the 'Cats out of field goal range) as they can't afford to leave points on the field in this game.

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

Above was an analysis of both teams' strengths; now on to their weak units which will also be matched up. Northwestern's defense is bad (101st in total defense, 88th in scoring D), but Penn State's offense is almost equally bad (78th in total offense, 96th in scoring offense). As mentioned earlier, the biggest problem is the two-headed monster (not in a good way) of Matt McGloin (the former walk-on who torched NU in the second half of last year's meeting) and Rob Bolden (the true freshman last year who was pulled for McGloin as PSU fell down 21-0). Paterno has stubbornly stuck with both of them, refusing to put McGloin in despite the team's success with him behind center (he does have significantly better numbers as well). Look for this trend to continue, and hopefully the 'Cats' defense can take advantage of this awkward circumstance.

But, PSU seems to be finding their rhythm thanks to RB Silas Redd, who burned NU last year (131 yards on 11 rushes) and has been going on quite a roll as of late, averaging 134.0 yards per game in their last three games (all against Big Ten competition). 'Cats fans know how dangerous a solid running game coupled with play action passing can be for the NU D; just look at Iowa's second half performance last week as they ran away from NU after the 'Cats tied the game in the third quarter. The key for the NU D, particularly the defensive line and the guys in the middle: Niko Mafuli and Jack DiNardo, will be to contain the running game and force PSU into passing downs, where hopefully their spotty QB play (and 50.9% completion rate) will catch up with them. One advantage over last season is that the 'Cats' linebackers, and defense in general, are doing a good job of tackling guys on teams not named after a branch of the military.

Now, a word on the passing game. Two things: most importantly, the Northwestern secondary has to get its act together and at the very least get on the same page. Don't leave guys wide open and NU will at least have a shot. Thankfully, Derek Moye, PSU's top receiver who has burned NU badly in the last two meetings, is out with a broken foot. But it's not like they have a lack of speedy weapons there: Justin Brown and Devon Smith are nice options, while senior TE Andrew Szczerba is a big receiving option (though he was benched during last week's game due to some issues including a dropped pass in the end zone). NU knows it needs to improve in the secondary, and the errors they have made are certainly correctable. If they can cover the receivers and accomplish their previous goal of containing the ground game, the NU defense will be in pretty good shape. The second point: rush the passer. NU has zero sacks over the last two games, and if they can get pressure on the PSU QB, good things can certainly happen.

While the Northwestern defense won't suddenly begin to look like Penn State's, a few improvements could yield huge results, particularly against an offensively-challenged team like PSU. And if they can start to get some more pressure up front, they may net some turnovers that could really turn this game in NU's favor. The two huge keys are: containing the run game and actually covering receivers (note that I'm not asking for NFL cornerback-type blanket coverage, just someone to be within 2-3 yards of the receivers). If they do that, they'll go a long way to pulling off a win here.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Penn State's go-to kicker is Anthony Fera, who is 9-of-10 on the year after taking over kicking duties as well as his normal punting in game four this year after their two other place kickers went a collective 2-of-7 early on (though it's worth noting that all of their kicks were beyond 30 yards while seven of Fera's were inside the 30; Fera's long is 40 yards). They seem to be in a similar situation as NU in the kicking game, since NU's Jeff Budzien is now 3-of-6 on the year (a couple of his misses were 45+ yards). It will be interesting to see what happens if PSU can force NU to field goal tries and if PSU's offense fizzles in the red zone.

Both teams have weapons in the return game: PSU's Chaz Powell has taken one to the house on kickoff returns and averages 32.8 yards per return, while Justin Brown has been their primary punt returner and averages 7.2 yards per return. But, they'll run into a formidable opponent in NU's coverage teams, who rank in the top 12 nationally in both categories. NU's punter Brandon Williams will be looking for some consistency as some shanks have hurt his average this year, but he has shown the ability to boom some kicks (a few over 50 including a long of 65).

Northwestern obviously has a dynamic return man in Venric Mark, who has boosted NU to a 13th rank nationally on punt returns while also averaging a nice 22.3 yards per kick return; he has the ability to make something great happen every time he touches the ball. Opponents have responded by trying to avoid kicking the ball to him, but that has led to some kicks out of bounds (NU opponents have done that 3 times on the year) and shorter punts (opponents are averaging 38.3 yards per punt, which would rank 80th nationally if it was from an individual punter). PSU's net punting has been pretty bad on the year (35 yards per punt) as they have a middling punt return defense (65th nationally, allowing 8.2 yards per return with 12 punt returns) even though Fera is a decent punter (18th nationally). This obviously means Mark will have a chance to make something happen for the 'Cats. They aren't anything special on kick return defense, either, ranking 85th and allowing 22.7 yards per kick return.

The return game is certainly an area where the Wildcats can gain some "hidden yardage" by keeping PSU returns to a minimum with their stellar coverage teams while Venric Mark can get something going with some solid returns against underwhelming Nittany Lion units. And if Mark can find an opening and go the distance, that could very well tip things towards an NU win.

Miscellaneous Notes

Persa vs. PSU

Dan Persa has had a couple shots at his home state's big school while at Northwestern: he came into the game in place of an injured Mike Kafka (hamstring pull) in 2009 and competed admirably in last year's contest in State College. His stat line in those two games: 62.5% completion rate for 316 pass yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; 31 carries for 204 rushing yards, 2 TDs (6.6 yards per carry) with sacks removed. Look for another gutty performance out of Persa who will likely do everything in his power to try and beat Penn State in his final try as a Wildcat.

NU vs. Penn State in Evanston

The 'Cats have had some exciting contests against the Nittany Lions in Evanston: there was PSU's 38-35 comeback win in 2001 that went back and forth in the fourth quarter, NU's 17-7 win in 2003 that was played in rare lake-effect snow and featured 17 unanswered fourth quarter points for NU, PSU's 34-29 win in '05 that also went back and forth in the final period and propelled PSU to a Big Ten championship season, and the last meeting in '09 that saw NU holding a 13-10 edge in the third quarter before giving up a slew of points late. Look for another close contest here; note that Northwestern has avearged 441.5 total yards of offense per game in those four aforementioned games.

Fitz vs. Penn State

Coach Fitzgerald has yet to beat PSU (0-3) but it's not like the 'Cats have been out of the games: NU has held leads in the second half of their last two meetings and in the collective first halves of all three games vs. PSU since he's been the head man, NU has outscored the Nittany Lions 41-33. Fitz will be looking to get his squad to finish the game (NU has been outscored by an average of 6.3 points per game in the fourth quarter alone this season) in order to move up the Northwestern all-time wins list; he has remained stuck tied for 3rd, one behind Randy Walker in 2nd place with 37 wins.

Paterno Milestone Games

Northwestern will once again be facing PSU's Joe Paterno in a potential milestone victory game: he equaled Bear Bryant's 323 wins (then the Division I-A/FBS record) with the comeback win in 2001, hit the 400 milestone in last year's victory, and is now looking to equal Eddie Robinson's overall Division I (FBS & FCS) record of 408 wins in this game.

Reversal of the "Ownership Triangle"?

Going into this season, Northwestern had won 5 of its last 6 games against Iowa, and subsequently lost to them last week. Iowa, meanwhile, had owned Penn State as of late, winning 8 of their last 9 meetings, but two weeks ago the Hawkeyes were defeated by PSU. Now, the 'Cats will be looking to upend Penn State's winning ways (PSU has won 11 of their 14 games against NU since joining the league in 1993, which was their first meeting) in order to complete the reversal of said "triangle."

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg).

One positive during Northwestern's three losses to begin Big Ten play is that the 'Cats have remained healthy, getting a few guys back from injury (including safeties Jared Carpenter and David Arnold this week) and avoiding any serious injuries (Persa came out of the Iowa game with a ding to his hand and trainers were also checking out his ribs at one point, but he'll be good to go this week: newly shaved head and all). Hopefully this will be a boon to NU down the stretch.

Penn State

WR Derek Moye (out, foot), LB Michael Mauti (out for season, knee), WR Curtis Drake (questionable, leg), RB Brandon Beachum (questionable, ankle), LB Dakota Royer (doubtful, hamstring), FB Pat Zerbe (out for season, knee)

Penn State lost one of their best defensive players when Mauti went down against Eastern Michigan, but the defense seemingly hasn't missed a beat. Notable, though, is the loss of Moye at WR, though they certainly have enough talent at that position to damage the NU defensive backfield if it hasn't been able to resolve the communication issues that have plagued them this year. Those are two significant injuries, but PSU has managed to have a nice start to the season with their only loss coming to a top-3 Alabama squad. The remainder of the injuries are to reserves.


Northwestern 24, Penn State 23

The 'Cats have their collective back against the wall, but Fitz is seemingly upbeat and this team certainly has the tools to get out of its current funk; as many have noted NU hasn't been that far away from winning any of its games thus far. They should have a nice edge in this homecoming night game while Penn State will be heading into the toughest atmosphere they've faced all season. This will be a game of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness, but NU's offense is statistically and realistically better than any PSU has seen so far, while the defense just needs some communication corrections in order to move towards respectability. I expect Persa to have a huge game as he leads NU to a big win while the defense does enough to hold down a relatively inept PSU offense; hidden yardage in the return game will help NU's cause.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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