Game Preview: Northwestern at Penn State
WNUR’s Greg Mroz (@wizard_of_mroz) previews Northwestern’s first conference game against the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Game Preview: Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0)
The first win was not pretty, but Northwestern took care of business in the 2nd half against Western Illinois, and can now focus on their first conference opponent, which may be their toughest opponent of all. Penn State is 4-0, and while many aren’t necessarily sold on them as the favorites to win the Big Ten East despite the undefeated start. The first Big Ten game for Northwestern may be its most difficult as the Wildcats look to avenge their 39-28 loss in State College two years. Lets take a look at the key matchups in Saturdays game.
Christian Hackenberg vs Northwestern Secondary
This is the matchup that more than likely decide the game on the offensive side of the ball for Penn State. Hackenberg is being touted as the best QB in the conference and a legitimate pro prospect, and the numbers he is putting up through the first three games speak for themselves. Hackenberg is averaging 315.2 passing yards per game, and is completing over 60 percent of his passes. Penn State’s passing attack is ranked 1st in the conference and he’s the reason why. He has thrown 5 interceptions to just 4 touchdowns, and did not throw a touchdown in each of the last two games. That gives Mike Hankwitz and Northwestern hope that despite what the pundits say, Hackenberg is human.
On the flip side, Northwestern’s pass defense has been pretty solid, except for the 1st half against Cal. Jared Goff of Cal threw for 281 yards, and Trenton Norvell of Western Illinois threw for 292 yards, yet it’s the combined 180 yards passing from three Northern Illinois quarterbacks that keep Northwestern’s pass yards allowed average to 257.3, which ranks 11th in the conference. For the most part the Wildcats have done a good job at not getting beat up through the passing game, but two things are of concern when facing someone like Christian Hackenberg. Those things are the big play and injuries. In each of Northwestern’s two losses, there has been a pass play that has gone against them for over 50 yards and a touchdown. Secondly, nobody knows how healthy Ibraheim Campbell will be, and if hes not 100 or he cant go altogether, then Northwestern will have a lot of trouble stopping the Penn State pass attack.
Justin Jackson vs Penn State Front 7
For an offense that has been less than impressive (under 300 total yards vs FCS Western Illinois) the bright spot has been freshman tailback Justin Jackson. He is the leading rusher for the Wildcats through 3 games, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and leading the team with 41 total carries. Jackson got 21 carries vs Western Illinois which accounted for over half of the teams total rushing plays, so it can be safely assumed that he is the bell cow back in Mick McCall’s offense. Of the 8 touchdowns that Northwestern has scored this season, Jackson has two of them, and the running game has accounted for half of all total touchdowns this year. Its no stretch of the imagination to say that he is the engine that makes the car go.
Penn State however may have something to say about that . The Nittany Lions have the best run defense in the Big Ten, allowing only 49.5 rushing yards per game, which in college football is astounding. Not only that, Penn State is best in the conference in scoring defense, allowing only 11 points per game. The key stat though when analyzing the PSU run defense is that they allow only 1.8 yards per carry. Justin Jackson is the type of back that could create his own holes purely based on how fast he is, but expect a lot of Northwestern’s offense to come through the air if Penn State’s ground defense keep the Wildcats rush attack in neutral.
Pat Fitzgerald vs James Franklin
One of the storylines in this matchup might be a storyline that involves a school that isn’t playing in this game. When James Franklin’s Vanderbilt team lost to Northwestern two years ago, Vanderbilt, who was scheduled to play Northwestern again in 2013, backed out of the game. This will be Franklin’s first conference home game, and it will be against a coach that is as fiery and competitive as he is. Pat Fitzgerald may have to take a few risks and gamble a bit in a hostile environment in order to give his team the best opportunity to win. It should be a very well coached game on both sides, with Franklin and Fitzgerald playing chess with each other, especially if its close going into the 4th quarter.
Northwestern is a lot better than they were after the Northern Illinois game, but there is too much that is stacked against this team in order to give them any chance at winning the game. Pat Fitzgerald said that he believes that this team can win any game that they play, and the effort shown in practices certainly justifies that notion. Yet there isn’t enough tangible game evidence, especially on the offensive end for Northwestern that says they can put up enough points to compete
Penn State 35, Northwestern 14