Penn State Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Northwestern

Barry Leonard@@barryleonardjrAnalyst IIIOctober 5, 2012

Penn State Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Northwestern

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    The Penn State Nittany Lions return home in Week 6 to take on the surprise No. 24 ranked Northwestern Wildcats who enter the contest with a record of 5-0.  The game is the first home conference game for the Nittany Lions.

    Currently, Danny Sheridan in USA Today has the Lions as a 2 point favorite.

    After starting the year 0-2, the Nittany Lions have rebounded to reel off three straight wins to end September. In order for the Lions to keep that streak alive, they are going to have to be firing on all cylinders against the up-start Wildcats.

    Though the 'Cats are undefeated, they are beatable. Penn State is going to have to continue the things that have worked over the last few weeks.

    The following slides outline five keys to the Nittany Lions finishing Saturday with a four game win streak.

1. Establish the Running Game

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    The running back position was one of the biggest question marks heading into the 2012 Penn State season. That question mark became even bigger when starter Bill Belton left Week 1 with an injury and backup Derek Day exited the Week 2 game with an injury as well.

    Since Week 2, Penn State has used a running back committee including Michael Zordich, Curtis Dukes and Zach Zwinak to carry the load.

    Zwinak is coming off a 94-yard game against Temple and a 100-yard, two touchdown game against Illinois.

    If the Lions are going to be successful in conference play, they must establish a ground game in order to take pressure off of Matt McGloin and the suddenly prolific passing attack.

    Look for Zwinak to carry the majority of the load against the Wildcats. Zordich and Belton should also see some touches to keep the Northwestern defense guessing.

2. Continue to Minimize the Turnovers

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    The Nittany Lions have done a great job of protecting the football this season.

    The Penn State offense has only made a total of four turnovers all season, with three coming in Week 1. That trend needs to continue against Northwestern. Nothing kills momentum more than turning the ball over, especially in the red zone.

    Quarterback Matt McGloin has done an excellent job of limiting the mistakes so far in 2012. McGloin, who threw 14 interceptions combined in 2010 and 2011, only has two so far this year.

    Saturday's game will most likely be close, anyways. Any mistake could be magnified and affect the outcome of the game. The Nittany Lions need to continue protecting the ball on offense and avoid the big mistakes to be successful in Week 6.

3. Continue to Involve the Tight Ends in the Passing Game

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    By now, everyone knows that a Bill O'Brien offense is going to feature big, pass-catching tight ends. The Penn State offense is no different.

    Big Ten leading receiver Allen Robinson draws the most attention from opposing defenses, and rightly so. The attention that is given to Robinson opens up the field for other players, most notably the tight ends.

    Freshman tight end Kyle Carter is the second leading receiver on the team. Carter has caught 19 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown. Junior tight end Matt Lehman is the third leading receiver on the team with nine catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns.

    Lehman, who led the Lions with 70 yards and a touchdown against Illinois in Week 5 will look to build on that performance against Northwestern.

    Quarterback Matt McGloin seems comfortable spreading the ball around and he is not afraid to look for his big targets in the red zone.

    Regardless of which one, the Penn State tight ends need to step up and continue their solid play in Week 6.

4. Shut Down the Now Prolific Northwestern Offense

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    Northwestern enters the game against Penn State fresh off a school record 704 total yards of offense in Week 5 against Indiana. The Wildcats rank second in the Big Ten and ninth in the country with 255.8 rushing yards per game. Shutting down the Northwestern running attack will be critical for the Penn State defense.

    The Wildcats' running game is led by running back Venric Mark and dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter. Colter, who has now turned into more of a running back, is coming off a huge game against Indiana. He ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns, while also racking up 131 yards receiving.

    While Colter handled more of the quarterback duties to start the year, Trevor Siemian attempted 32 passes in Week 6 to Colter's 3. Siemian torched the Indiana offense for 308 yards through the air.

    As if figuring out who to plan for at quarterback isn't hard enough, the Lions also have to gameplan for Mark. The junior runner is third in the Big Ten with 538 yards rushing.

    Michael Mauti and the Penn State defense will definitely have it's hands full with the Wildcats. The yardage may pile up, but keeping points to a minimum is an obvious key to the Lions coming out on top.

5. Special Teams Must Step Up

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    Undoubtedly, the kicking game has been the worst part of the 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions. Kicker Sam Ficken has struggled to provide any consistency on field goals and extra points.

    With Penn State's competition getting stronger as it moves through the Big Ten schedule, every point is important. The Lions cannot afford to leave any points on the field against the Wildcats. Ficken is going to have to come through when and if he is called upon in Week 6.

    Unfortunately for the Lions, the special teams problems are not confined to placekicking.

    Punter Alex Butterworth ranks 11th in the Big Ten with a measly 36.4 yard average on his punts.

    Aside from the kicking game, the Lions have struggled to find success in the return game. As a team, the Lions rank 11th in the conference with just a 16.3 yard average on kick returns. Their 7.2 yard average on punt returns ranks seventh in the nation.

    Bill O'Brien has yet to find a consistent returner, even using linebacker Gerald Hodges in Week 1. Cornerback Adrian Amos leads the team with just 53 kick return yards.

    O'Brien will need whoever he sends back there to have a solid day on Saturday. Field position will be critical and solid kick returns will help to set up the Penn State offense for success.