Saturday, October 6, 2012 11:00 am CDT
Game Preview: Penn State
by Jonathan Hodges
No. 24 (AP) / No. 22 (Coaches) Northwestern Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) head
out for their first Big Ten road trip of 2012 and will face scandal
ridden Penn State (3-2, 1-0) who are in the midst of an unprecedented
situation but have been resilient, running off three straight victories
heading into this matchup. NU's offense is humming along nicely after
setting a Wildcat record with 704 total yards last week against
Indiana, and the defense continues to perform well enough to win games
and has still done a good job of stopping opponents' run games as they
currently lead the Big Ten in run defense allowing just 90.0 yards per
the flip side, PSU features a tough defense led by LBs Mike Mauti and
Gerald Hodges, but also a surging QB Matt McGloin who is turning out to
be one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. They also feature a
new permanent head coach in Bill O'Brien who is installing an offense
similar to the one he ran for the New England Patriots that features
various formations and is focused on versatility of players like tight
ends and fullbacks to be used as blockers and receivers. Although the
Nittany Lions have had their share of issues this season following the
offseason events that saw a seismic change in the football program
including sanctions and transfers out of PSU (namely: losses to Ohio
and a Virginia squad that doesn't look that good), they have regrouped
and are playing very competitive football.
looks to be the first true test for both teams, though, as the
Wildcats' five wins have come against teams that have combined to go
0-6 versus BCS conference teams and 1-7 versus FBS teams (without
counting the NU game). Then again, PSU's five opponents have gone 0-5
versus BCS competition and 4-8 versus FBS teams (the teams they've
beaten have combined for just 1 FBS win). There is still a lot to learn
about both squads here and that could yield an interesting result to
Opening Line: Penn State by 3.
Who Should Win: Northwestern.
I was this close to calling this a toss-up, but after stepping back,
the fact is that NU is likely the better team (though that margin is
small). The Wildcat offense is humming along quite nicely, the defense
has shut down opposing running games, and special teams have had a lot
more positives than negatives. Meanwhile, PSU is still having issues in
positions where they lost players to transfer (particularly RB and K)
and has run up a three game winning streak against rather bad
competition, and that after dropping two games to mediocre teams.
This game is in Happy Valley, a tough place for anyone to play, and, of
course, the Wildcats have only ever won one game in that stadium (a
14-7 win in 2004). Plus, Penn State is seemingly on an upswing, riding
a three game winning streak after an inauspicious beginning to the Bill
O'Brien era with two tough losses. As usual, PSU features a stout
defense with talented linebackers, and then there is QB Matt McGloin
who has carved up the 'Cats over the past two meetings to the tune of a
63.6% completion rate, 417 yards, and 6 TDs passing. This will
certainly be NU's toughest test of the 2012 season.
NU Offense vs. PSU Defense:
This certainly looks like the best defense NU has faced to date,
although statistically this Penn State squad is middle-of-the-road
(47th nationally in total defense, 46th in rushing defense, 60th in
passing defense). But, where they have thrived in 2012 is by generating
turnovers: PSU is tied for 19th nationally with 11 turnovers gained,
and they have used that to keep opponents off of the scoreboard,
ranking 14th in scoring defense (13.6 points per game allowed). Their
aforementioned linebackers are excellent, the line is solid (they're
allowing 3.6 yards per carry and average 2.6 sacks per game), and the
secondary isn't too shabby. NU's offense will be hard pressed to put
together a showing like last week, but they will hopefully benefit from
using Kain Colter in various ways and by getting some accurate
downfield throws from Trevor Siemian against the weakest point in the
PSU defense. And given McGloin's success against NU, the 'Cats will
need as many points as they can get, so hopefully NU put those red zone
woes way behind them.
NU Defense vs. PSU Offense:
Now this will be interesting, as the porous NU secondary faces a QB who
has torched them for two straight seasons, and McGloin has now matured
and is leading the conference in passing yards. Their offensive numbers
aren't extremely impressive, but this is an opportunistic team and have
greatly benefited from a +1.4 turnover per game margin that ranks 14th
nationally. And despite personnel issues at tailback (the transfer of
former starter Silas Redd and injuries to some of the remaining
players), they stay committed to running the football, with five
different RBs carrying the ball 20 or more times this year (none of
them have greater than 40 carries). The NU defensive line will have a
difficult time getting to McGloin with a talented PSU OL that is
allowing just 1.2 sacks per game (25th nationally), but they'll need to
put pressure on him to give some relief to the DBs. Northwestern's best
option here is to shut down the ground game and hope for mistakes
through the air and that McGloin gets hit by the law of averages.
The 'Cats certainly has an advantage in the kicking game, and one can
easily tell just by looking at the stats: in 2012, NU is 12-of-12 on
FGs and 19-of-19 on XPs, while PSU is 2-of-8 on FGs and 15-of-17 on
XPs. Everyone knows NU's potential on returns with Venric Mark, and
while NU was gashed on kick returns last week, they won't have to worry
too much against PSU who is 110th nationally on kick returns and 71st
on punt returns. Also, don't go to sleep on field position advantage
from the punting game: PSU is 114th at 32.53 yards in net punting,
while the 'Cats are 25th at 40.39 as Brandon Williams is quietly
putting together a solid year. Look for special teams to be a boon for
NU in this one.
- Under Fitz, Northwestern is 12-0 when NU out-sacks its opponent.
- The Wildcats' streak without an interception ended against Indiana at 30 full quarters and 216 pass attempts.
is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 255.8 yards per game on the ground
with 14 TDs (currently ahead of NU's record of 255.2 per game, set in
2000). The rush defense is allowing just 3.3 yards per carry, 90.0
yards per game, and has allowed 4 rushing TDs in 2012 *currently ahead
of the NU record of 126.4 yards per game allowed, set in 2008).
The 'Cats' top three tacklers are their starting LBs: Chi Chi Ariguzo
with 39, Damien Proby with 37, and David Nwabuisi with 31.
Updated NU winning rate as a favorite under Fitz: 0.778 (under Walker,
it was 0.766, and under Barnett from 1995-98 it was 0.714).
- Fitz is four wins from tying NU's all time coaching wins record of 49.
NU's last win as a ranked team (AP) was 09/27/2001 versus Michigan
State and currently has a 5 game losing streak as a ranked team (AP).
NU has been an underdog in the last three games it has played as an AP
ranked team, by a combined +34.5 (not counting this game). The 'Cats'
last win as an underdog while ranked in the AP poll was versus Michigan
on 11/04/2000 (54-51).
- Since 1995, NU is 21-14 when ranked (AP). Eight of those losses came to teams that were also ranked at the time.
- Venric Mark ranks ninth nationally and second in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards averaging 176.8 per game.
- NU is ninth nationally and second in the Big Ten in third down conversion rate, at 54.3%.
- In the first halves of games in 2012, NU has outscored its opponents by an average of 16.8 - 6.6.
- Under Fitz, NU is 7-2 as an underdog of 5 of fewer points.
- Since 1995, Northwestern is 3-1 when outrushing PSU and 0-9 when NU is outgained on the ground by Penn State.
has faced current PSU DC Ted Roof five times as a coach (Duke DC in
2002 & 2003, Duke Head Coach in 2007, Minnesota DC in 2008, and
Auburn DC in 2009); NU has gone 3-2 against him and scored 25.4 points
With a win, Northwestern has a chance to become the first team in the
country to attain bowl eligibility (Ohio, also 5-0, also has a noon
- Under Fitz, NU is 5-5 when it is an opponent's homecoming matchup.
Prediction: Northwestern 24 - Penn State 21
a lower scoring affair with the PSU defense keeping the NU ground game
contained for the most part but with Siemian stepping in with timely
throws to put points on the board. Meanwhile, the NU defense will also
lock up PSU's RBs and force McGloin to make some mistakes to make up
for relatively flawless performances in the last two matchups between
these teams. In the end, NU's advantage on special teams (particularly
in place kicking but also in field position thanks to the return game
and net punting) will tip the scales in the 'Cats' favor and allow
Northwestern to bring home its first win over Penn State in the
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