Game Preview


Penn State
Saturday, October 6, 2012  11:00 am CDT
WGN Radio

Game Preview: Penn State
by Jonathan Hodges

The 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 game.

On 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.

This 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 this game.

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.

Upset Factor: 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.

Special Teams: 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.
- NU 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.
- NU 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 per game.
- 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 start time).
- Under Fitz, NU is 5-5 when it is an opponent's homecoming matchup.

Prediction: Northwestern 24 - Penn State 21
Expect 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 Fitzgerald era.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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