Everything in the Northwestern Wildcats' (5-3, 2-2) season was supposed to be building to this week's matchup against #10 (Coaches' and Harris polls)/#12 (AP poll and BCS) Penn State (7-1, 3-1): It's an afternoon game (3:30 PM CT start time) televised on ESPN that falls on Halloween and is the biggest home game of NU's 2009 season. Unfortunately, the 'Cats faltered a few times early on, but this game still has huge implications with PSU trying to stay in the Big Ten race and Northwestern trying to attain bowl eligibility.
The Wildcats are, of course, coming off of an all-time comeback win (in terms of points) last week against Indiana, while Penn State easily handled Michigan on the road by a score of 35-10. PSU has been on a roll after losing their first Big Ten game of the year to Iowa, outscoring the last four opponents by a total score of 142-30 (that is an average winning score of 35.5-7.5). Needless to say, the Nittany Lions are on a mission.
NU, on the other hand, has already lost to two common opponents that PSU beat (Syracuse and Minnesota) and has racked up its five wins against teams that are a combined 9-24 (not counting the losses to NU). Penn State hasn't had the strongest of schedules, but is building momentum after posting big wins over respectable Big Ten teams the last two weeks.
NU is a big underdog in this game, and for good reason, as PSU leads the Big Ten in nine major statistical categories (pass efficiency defense, pass defense, pass efficiency, rushing defense, scoring defense, total defense, total offense, sacks, and TFLs). They execute well in all aspects of the game and have the capability to post explosion plays when needed, and who would expect anything less from a Joe Paterno coached team.
The 'Cats will be looking to put together their best game of the season if they are to have any chance of pulling this upset. The offense has shown an ability to move the ball, with the NU passing offense ranking second in the conference, while the defense has shut out each of its last four opponents in at least one half of the football game.
Also, don't forget that the last three games in this series played at Ryan Field have had some entertaining results. In 2001, Joe Paterno tied Bear Bryant in all-time college coaching wins as PSU won in a back and forth game 38-35. In 2003, NU won 17-7 in a game marked by unusual lake-effect snow. And in 2005, PSU made a last minute game-winning drive that propelled them to a Big Ten title despite a strong showing from the 'Cats.
Finally, this game has all the markings of a trap game for the Lions, with a big matchup against Ohio State looming next week. But, they'll be facing a team that hasn't lived up to its abilities this year on the road and playing in a building that has hosted some close games. Although Northwestern looks overmatched on paper, this one could get interesting.
Opening Line: Penn State by 14.
Who Should Win:
Penn State. The statistics and records tilt heavily in Penn State's favor, and they likely have the edge in virtually every matchup on the field. The Nittany Lions are on a roll and have their eyes on a BCS berth—if not a share of the conference title—if they can continue their run into November. I will save going through their long list of weapons for the unit breakdown because it is just too long to list here.
Northwestern has yet to play a "complete game" this season against FBS/I-A competition, and has shown flashes of solid play on both sides of the ball. Although the defense has been banged up, they've shut out each of their last four opponents in at least one half of the game. QB Mike Kafka has proved his passing skills and is posting solid numbers and leading the offense. If NU can put it all together, they can definitely surprise PSU, and add to that the fact that this has all the makings of a trap game for the highly ranked Lions.
What to Look for:
Northwestern Offense / Penn State Defense
First, let's get the Penn State defensive superlatives out of the way. They're first nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 8.9 points per game. PSU is in the top ten nationally and first in the conference in rushing defense (79.8 yards per game), pass efficiency defense (91.7), total defense (240.3 yards per game), pass defense (160.5 yards per game), sacks (3.3 per game), and TFLs (8.8 per game).
Their strength is up front, with an excellent (as always) defensive line and a linebacking corps that makes PSU worthy of the oft-used title "Linebacker U." LBs Josh Hull, Navarro Bowman, and Sean Lee are the top three tacklers on the team, and have a combined 24 TFLs to go along with five sacks and three interceptions. On the line, DE Jack Crawford leads the team with 5.5 sacks, but DT Jared Odrick isn't far behind with 5.0.
If there was any question about this team's defense heading into the year, it was their secondary, but their top-level pass defense stats have quashed any idea of exploiting that. They've allowed just three passing TDs on the year to 10 interceptions. S Nick Sukay leads the team with five pass break-ups and has an interception to boot.
Needless to say, the sputtering NU offense has its work cut out for themselves. Thankfully, the Northwestern offensive line had its best performance of the year against Indiana, who featured two excellent DEs, as they allowed no sacks and just three QB hurries. If the Wildcats are to have any shot of winning this game, the success of the OL in pass protection must continue.
Look for NU to abandon the running game (at least from the running backs) with Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons likely out and Penn State holding opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry. No single player has gained more than 88 yards on the ground against PSU this year, and twice teams have failed to have their leading rusher reach just 20 yards against the Nittany Lions.
Kafka, as virtually the single source of NU's offensive production, has his work cut out for him against such a tough defense that will undoubtedly be after him all day, whether he's passing or running. He's either run himself or passed on 65.5% of Northwestern's offensive plays this year.
The Wildcats will need a superb effort from the line, while Kafka will need to avoid mistakes (turnovers) like the plague to give the 'Cats a chance.
Northwestern Defense / Penn State Offense
Penn State's defense is really good, and their offense isn't far behind. They're first in the Big Ten in total offense (428.1 yards per game) and second in scoring offense (30.3 points per game). They're led by seniors QB Daryll Clark, who is first in the conference in pass efficiency, and RB Evan Royster, who is second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game.
Clark can do damage with both his arm (he has 1,884 yards on the year along with 17 TDs and just 7 INTs) and legs (he's third on PSU in rushing yards and is tied for the team lead with four rushing touchdowns). PSU has solid WR weapons as well, fielding four guys with 20 or more catches this year (those four have a combined 13 receiving touchdowns). Derek Moye and Chaz Powell are the biggest downfield threats (both average 15.0 yards per catch) but they have a bevy of talented WRs.
Also, Penn State is 20th nationally in sacks allowed, allowing just 1.13 per game this year. Add to that the fact that they're racking up 5.0 yards per carry on the ground, and that means that NU will be facing a formidable offensive line that is just plain taking care of business.
It was reassuring to see NU DE Corey Wootton get his first sack of the season last week, but the defensive line has its work cut out for themselves against this strong PSU front. The 'Cats best chance of staying in this game is to take away the run, which NU has done a reasonably good job of over the past four weeks or so. The problem is that this is the best running attack NU has seen this season.
The problem is that Northwestern has experienced most of its injuries in the back seven (DBs and LBs), and even with a few guys toughing out injuries, things may get dicey against such a talented offense. Linebackers Quentin Davie, Nate Williams, and Ben Johnson have all shown flashes this year but will have to combine for a solid effort from the whole unit to help contain Penn State.
And in the secondary, it looks like NU may be forced to play walk-on Ricky Weina at CB again with Sherrick McManis continuing to nurse leg injuries. Smith is likely out with his hand injury (for the third consecutive week), and Phillips is trying to play as much as he can with a banged up shoulder.
Without some of its key components, whoever is out on the field for NU will have to play the games of their lives to keep NU in the game. With a suffocating defense themselves, the only way the 'Cats have a shot is to keep Penn State off the scoreboard as much as possible (which is, of course, easier said than done).
For once, Northwestern is actually on par with or even better than an opponent on special teams because Penn State's third phase is actually pretty bad.
In the return game, NU is 91st in punt returns and 103rd in kick returns, while PSU is 99th and 116th, respectively. Neither team has been able to generate much of anything this year in the return game, needless to say.
Both rank 110th or lower in net punting (less than 32 yards per punt), although Penn State has placed half of its punts inside the 20 yard line (compared to under 30% for NU).
On coverage teams, NU somehow also has an advantage: PSU is 117th in punt return defense (albeit that number is skewed by the punt that Iowa blocked and returned for a TD), while NU is 49th allowing just 7.5 yards per punt return. On kicks, NU has allowed 21.9 yards per kick return (despite a long 93 yard TD return against them last week) while the Lions are allowing 22.6 yards per return (83rd nationally).
Finally, the kickers. NU's Stefan Demos is 11-of-12 on FGs (his only miss was blocked), while PSU's Collin Wagner is just 8-of-12 (one miss came inside of 30 yards).
So, the 'Cats must take advantage of their edge on special teams to generate some kind of momentum in the game since Penn State has a significant advantage in both other phases of the game.
Attendance: Despite being over two-thirds of the way through the 2009 regular season, NU has failed to eclipse an attendance mark over 25,000 in five home games this year. In fact, NU's cumulative attendance of 106,636 falls short of a single game attendance mark at either Michigan or Penn State. Thankfully, this week's opponent and the late afternoon start should help fill the stadium a bit.
Turnovers: Last week, NU managed to win in spite of losing the turnover battle 3-0, but don't expect that to work again this week against a much better opponent. Penn State has a +0.38 turnover margin on the year and is 5-0 when tying or winning the turnover battle, and 2-1 when losing it. NU, on the other hand, is 3-0 when winning the turnover battle and 2-3 when losing. Note that PSU's only loss came on its worst turnover margin of the year, -2 against Iowa.
More on Turnovers: Penn State hasn't turned over the football in over 10 quarters of play (their last was a late second quarter interception against Eastern Illinois on October 10th).
Touchdown Differential: The Wildcats have scored 26 TDs on the year and have allowed 25. PSU, meanwhile, has scored 31 while allowing just seven.
Fast or Slow Starts: Northwestern has been notoriously bad early in games this year (despite cruising to huge leads against its first two opponents), being outscored by opponents 52-44 in the first quarter (52-16 after removing stats against Towson and Eastern Michigan). PSU, meanwhile, has clocked opponents by a first quarter score of 61-10. NU's chance in this game is likely to be determined in the first 15 minutes of play.
Third Down Conversions: NU has been pretty good on third down conversions this year (51.1%, sixth nationally). Unfortunately for NU, PSU is better at 53.6% (third nationally). The PSU defense has allowed a third down conversion rate of just 30.4%—good for 11th nationally.
Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), OL Mike Boyle (back, doubtful), DT Jack DiNardo (shoulder, questionable), LB Bryce McNaul (leg, doubtful), CB Justan Vaughn (leg, questionable), S Brendan Smith (hand, doutbful), S Brad Phillips (shoulder, questionable), CB Sherrick McManis (leg, doubtful), RB Stephen Simmons (ankle, doubtful), RB Jacob Schmidt (ankle, doubtful).
The injuries continue to pile up for NU, who saw McManis leave the Indiana game in the first half and not return, while Phillips rotated in and out as he managed his shoulder injury. Not listed is S Brian Peters whose left hand was fully wrapped against Indiana (he reportedly broke it last week).
The defense has sustained the most hardship, but hopefully the 'Cats can get Phillips on the field, at the very least. Although the offense is missing two of NU's top runners, Simmons and Schmidt, Scott Concannon established himself as a legitimate option last week, while Arby Fields is second on the depth chart. More to come on Thursday regarding injuries.
Penn State: RB Stephfon Green (ankle, questionable), OL Nerraw McCormack (ankle, questionable), OL DeOn'tae Pannell (ankle, questionable).
Penn State has had some bumps and bruises, but nothing compared to the scale of NU's injury problems. Their biggest issue has been on the offensive line, as both McCormack and Pannell play the same tackle position, forcing them to resort to a third-stringer the past couple of games, although their level of play hasn't dropped off. PSU has plenty of depth and their primary contributors are ready to go against NU.
Prediction: Northwestern 13 - Penn State 24
Although PSU is a heavy favorite on paper and looks like they could run it up against Northwestern, expect a closer game in a potential "trap game" for Penn State as they look ahead to next week's matchup against OSU.
While NU can make this one interesting, unfortunately it just doesn't look like they have the horses to run with Penn State, and will likely fall in the end despite keeping it close. It also doesn't help that the 'Cats will have to play close to a "perfect game" in this one while NU hasn't even shown the ability to put together a solid four-quarter effort against FBS/I-A competition this year.
In any case, this should be an exciting game because you can't beat the atmosphere of a big game with a late afternoon start.