They have the eighth-most wins as a program in college football history. They are one of eight programs that have put together winning seasons in each of the last 12 years. They are the Number 4 team in the nation and a popular College Football Playoff pick. They are the Penn State Nittany Lions, and they’re coming to Evanston for a Big Ten battle on Saturday.
Not exactly your typical Homecoming cupcake match. Northwestern scored a huge upset over Penn State the last time these teams matched up, but this year’s Nittany Lions are much better than the 2015 version, and the 2017 Wildcats had a tough time last week against Wisconsin. Let’s take a look at some storylines for this weekend’s matchup.
This isn’t really something anyone has been able to do, and Northwestern won’t be able to, either. That’s not as much a knock on the Wildcats as it is an acknowledgment that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is one of the most talented players in the country. He’s going to get his yards (he’s got over 1,200 all-purpose yards already) and his scores (8 all-purpose touchdowns in five games) but it’s up to the Wildcats to limit how much of either of those he can get. That falls on the linebackers. A somewhat underwhelming group to this point is going to get its biggest challenge of the season (and possibly ever), and it will be up to them to somehow slow down this season’s Heisman Trophy frontrunner.
The Rest of the Offense
Lest we forget, this is not a run-first, run-only offense. The rest of that side of the ball is pretty good, too. Quarterback Trace McSorley leads the conference in passing yards per game and yards of total offense, and has thrown for 12 touchdowns in five games, good for second place in the league. Penn State has never been known for having a star-studded wide receiver corps, but, on the flipside, every year they seem to have multiple guys who can beat you all over the field. Penn State has three guys with at least 260 receiving yards, and two with over 300. Northwestern has none. Penn State has three guys with at least 20 catches. Northwestern has none. This has been talked about endlessly already, but Northwestern’s secondary has been extremely banged-up, and it will be a big challenge for them to limit this elite Nittany Lion offense.
Somewhat Special Teams
Penn State can score in any and every phase of a football game. In addition to their 24 total offensive touchdowns thus far, the Lions have a punt return score, a kick return score, and a fumble returned for a score. Elsewhere, Penn State’s Tyler Davis has really struggled on his field goals this year (just 5-of-11), but he is lights-out on PATs and is fabulous on kickoffs. Punter Blake Gillikin is similarly effective at his job. Northwestern is notoriously anemic on punt returns, and their kickoff return average is about half of Penn State’s mark. This could turn into another advantage for the visitors from Happy Valley. In short, Northwestern will have to win some positional battles they’re not expected to if they’re going to win a game they’re not expected to.