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Northwestern vs. Penn State: Three matchups to watch

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The battle in the trenches will be key.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern's game against Penn State.

1. Pat Fitzgerald vs. James Franklin

When James Franklin was hired by Penn State in 2014 to replace Bill O'Brien, not many Big Ten coaches were more familiar with Franklin than Pat Fitzgerald. The two coaches have become familiar with one another going back to Franklin's tenure at Vanderbilt. Franklin's Commodores visited Ryan Field in Week 2 of the 2012 season, a 23-13 victory for Northwestern. Venric Mark rushed for 123 yards and a score and Kain Colter iced the game with a 29-yard touchdown run.

Fast forward to 2014, and Franklin and Fitz met again, this time at Beaver Stadium. Trevor Siemian threw for 258 yards and Anthony Walker sealed the game with a pick-six as Northwestern handed Penn State its first loss of the season, 29-6.

Press Conference Notes

This coaching rivalry has gone off the field as well. During Franklin's time at Vanderbilt, 18 players with both Northwestern and Vanderbilt offers chose one of the two schools. Thirteen chose Northwestern, while five chose Vanderbilt.

But the friction between the two was created in 2013, when Vanderbilt cancelled a non-conference series with Northwestern, and apparently did so by simply sending a letter, via U.S. Mail, to NU.

As this matchup pertains to Saturday, one of our theories is that Northwestern's scheme predictability hurts it against coaches that are familiar with the Wildcats. This will be the third time Franklin has faced Fitzgerald, so perhaps that theory would apply here. But is Franklin really a good enough coach to take advantage of that?

Advantage: Pat Fitzgerald

2. Penn State's defensive line vs. Northwestern's offensive line

Penn State's defensive line is downright scary. Coach Fitz said it himself in Monday's press conference, raving about the NCAA's runaway sack leader Carl Nassib, as well as what he thinks are two first-rounders at defensive tackle, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. Fitzgerald described matching up against this defensive line as a nightmare. "They stuff the run," he said. "They have athletic guys that can rush the passer. It's a great group."

This doesn't bode well for a Northwestern offensive line that has looked overmatched the last three games. Although it's tough to run when defenses stack the box, Justin Jackson mustered just 25 yards against Michigan, 30 yards against Iowa, and 40 against Nebraska. The offensive line has been adequate in its protection of Thorson, allowing only 1.6 sacks per game, but in Northwestern's two losses, Thorson was sacked a total of seven times.

The matchup on the interior will be especially important though. With Matt Frazier now back in game shape, and Geoff Mogus moving inside to guard, those two, along with Ian Park, will have their hands full with the Nittany Lions' tackles. But those three are probably NU's best offensive linemen. If they can keep Johnson and Zettel in check, Northwestern could get some semblance of a running game going.

If they can't though, and if tackles Blake Hance and Eric Olson can't contain Nassib, it could be a long day for Northwestern's offense.

Advantage: Penn State's defensive line

3. Northwestern's pass defense vs. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State's passing offense

This is the premier matchup of the game, featuring a top-ten defense (per S&P) against a highly-touted quarterback playing the best football of his career.

As I wrote earlier this week, the Penn State offense goes as Hackenberg goes. He has looked sharp, accurate, and confident in Penn State's past two games, albeit against Illinois and Maryland. The key for Northwestern will be to put pressure on Hackenberg and a suspect offensive line. The Nittany Lions are second-to-last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed, giving up 2.6 per game, and their offensive line was exposed in the 38-10 loss to Ohio State, in which it allowed five sacks. In Penn State's loss to Temple to open the season, Hackenberg was sacked an astounding 10 times. And when Hackenberg is under pressure, even when he gets the passes off, he's not the same quarterback. In that Temple game, he completed just 11 of 25 passes. Northwestern will have to make Hackenberg uncomfortable.

On the other side of the ball, we all know how stellar Northwestern's defense has been this season. A big key to its success has been limiting big plays. The Wildcats' damage control has been excellent. They rank 10th nationally in defensive IsoPPP (opponent explosiveness). Penn State's offense, meanwhile, while only ranking 59th in the country in S&P+ offense, is 7th nationally in IsoPPP. Hackenberg will take his fair share of shots deep, and he'll give his 6-foot-1 receivers, Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton, a shot at 50/50 balls. Matt Harris' return from injury will be a crucial boost for Northwestern's secondary though. With Harris and Nick VanHoose on the outside, Northwestern might just be able to hold its own in those individual matchups on the outside.

Advantage: Northwestern defense