by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
With gameday just one day away, we’ve already given you a breakdown of what to watch out for, Penn State links, two Q&As for an opponent’s perspective (Cory Giger, Altoona Mirror; Guy Cipriano, Centre Daily Times) and Northwestern media/blogger predictions. Now, we go inside the matchup to give you our prediction of who comes out on top, examining which team has the edge in different phases of the game.
When Northwestern Has The Ball…
This is easily the best defense Northwestern has faced all season. With playmakers in each tier – defensive tackle Jordan Hill, linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, and cornerback Adrian Amos – the Lions boast a ferocious unit. The batch of transfers in the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions this summer were far more damaging to the offensive side of the ball and special teams. The defense remains one of the Big Ten’s best, and NU will have trouble moving the ball against its collective athleticism and disciplined play.
To beat Penn State, NU needs to establish the run, which will open up space for receivers to make plays on the perimeter. The Wildcats can use Kain Colter at quarterback to run the option-based attack with Venric Mark, then mix in Trevor Siemian for a change of pace. The contrasting styles will keep the Lions off balance. If Colter and Mark can sustain drives on the ground, Siemian can take shots downfield. One caveat: I fully support NU’s two-quarterback system, because it’s largely worked and why go away from a system that’s operated this seamlessly. But Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall should stick with what’s working, with who has the hot hand. In other words, if Colter’s option-based attack is advancing the offense, it’s foolish to use Siemian for the sake of using Siemian. Employing a balanced offensive approach is the best way to attack this defense, but the Lions’ top-to-bottom strength on that side of the ball will disrupt the Wildcats’ offensive rhythm.
Edge: Penn State
When Penn State Has The Ball…
While quarterback Matt McGloin struggled for most of last season, he put up two touchdowns and nearly 200 yards against NU in Penn State’s 34-24 victory at Ryan Field. Thanks to the transfer-based departure of Rob Bolden – whose presence created instability at the quarterback position, and forced McGloin to constantly look over his shoulder after making mistakes – along with coach Bill O’Brien’s new pro-style system, which afford McGloin more freedoms than Joe Paterno’s old-school offense, McGloin is much improved in 2012. Though Penn State lost senior receiver Justin Hunter to transfer this offseason, sophomore Allen Robinson and tight end Kyle Carter have surfaced as reliable targets.
With McGloin playing the best football of his career, a young but talented receiving corps and a modernized offensive philosophy, the Lions have overcome major personnel attrition to field a respectable offense. In its past three games (Navy, Temple, @Illinois) Penn State has scored a combined 93 points. This offense is just new beginning to round into form. NU’s defense has provided reasons for optimism this season, but it’s walking into unfavorable conditions – an emotionally-charged Beaver Stadium, a reinvigorated team on a three-game win-streak, which holds a 12-3 all-time record against NU. More than anything else, this is just bad timing for the Wildcats. PSU is building momentum, especially on offense, and NU’s defense is ill-equipped to stem the tide.
Edge: Penn State
It’s gotten to the point where talking about NU’s kicking game and the massive turnaround its undergone in one season is almost cliché. The Wildcats are 12-for-12 on field goals for the year; the only other FBS team with a 100 percent make rate and at least nine field goals is San Jose State. Which is to say NU has the best field goal kicker in the country, or at least the best through five weeks of the season. If this game plays out as expected, a nail-biting affair decided late in the fourth-quarter, Jeff Budzien will need to extend his streak. Beaver Stadium is the toughest environment he’s seen this season.
Unlike NU, field goal kicking is not a point of pride for the Nittany Lions. After losing kicker/punter Anthony Fera – who finished last season as a semifinalist in both the Ray Guy and Lou Groza awards – in the offseason transfer wave, Penn State has struggled to find a viable replacement. Sam Ficken was the next in line, but his four misses cost Penn State a potential win on the road at Virginia in week two. Special teams is without question the Lions biggest vulnerability this season.
Penn State 24, Northwestern 21 – I’ve been impressed by Northwestern’s 5-0 start, extremely impressed. But I’m not sure it’s faced an opponent as talented or motivated as Penn State, who’s riding a three-game win streak and improving each week. We knew the defense would be stout, and it hasn’t disappointed. Mauti, Hodges, Hill and Amos are All-Conference level talents. But the offense is starting to learn O’Brien’s scheme, starting to implement some New England Patriot-esque principles. McGloin is not Tom Brady, but he’s an above-average quarterback in this league, particularly with O’Brien pulling the strings. The Lions have regrouped after so much turmoil over the summer. NU may be the better team, but it won’t be on Saturday.