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Northwestern-Penn State preview: Opponent Q&A with Nick Polak of Black Shoe Diaries

We go behind enemy lines to find out more on this week's matchup

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Every week during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.

Coming off a bye, Northwestern has quite the test this weekend, a home meeting with 7-2 Penn State. Penn State, as always, has loads of talent, and its only losses this year have been to two pretty good teams. We talked with Black Shoe Diaries' Nick Polak to preview the matchup.


Inside NU: After barely escaping College Park with a win against Maryland, Penn State really turned it up against Illinois, beating down the Illini 39-0, the Nittany Lions' first shutout of the year. What was different about the team, especially defensively, last week?

Nick Polak: Defensively, not a lot was different. They've fallen victim to a pair of running quarterbacks this season (J.T. Barrett and Perry Hills), but overall they've been outstanding. By S&P+ metrics, they sit just behind the Wildcats (NW- 7, PSU- 16) while they are ranked just ahead of the Wildcats in points surrendered per game (NW- 19, PSU- 17). The Nittany Lion defense has been led all season by their fantastic defensive line, which between Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib, has three players who will be playing on Sundays next year.

The big difference for Penn State in the Illinois game was the offensive efficiency. It was far and away Hackenberg's best game of the season (21/29, 266 yards, 2 TD, 1 Rec. TD), as he had time in the pocket, spread the ball out and took what was given to him. His play was the what allowed Penn State to achieve such an easy and dominant victory over the Illini.

INU: In Penn State's losses this year (at Temple and at Ohio State), Christian Hackenberg has really struggled. In those games combined, he's 18-for-38 for 223 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Having said that, PSU has also won when he hasn't necessarily played well. How important will his play be this weekend? Can Penn State reasonably expect to win if he doesn't play well?

NP: Against a defense as strong as Northwestern's, Hackenberg's play will be of the utmost importance. That being said, he doesn't need to be throwing for 300 yards to constitute a successful day, rather he simply needs to be able to take advantage when the Wildcats plug the box to stop Saquon Barkley. Hack is at his best when he's able to drop back on play action where his über-talented receivers will have time to run their full routes, and he'll have enough time to throw despite shortcomings of his offensive line. Against Northwestern's front, he won't have nearly as much time to throw as he did against Illinois, so establishing the run game early to give him the chance to set up play action will be very important.

INU: Saquon Barkley has been a revelation at running back, averaging over six-and-a-half yards per carry and already with five touchdowns. What makes the freshman so good?

NP: I'm the recruiting editor for Black Shoe Diaries, so I've been following Barkley since he was a junior in high school. The thing that's so striking in my eyes, is that everything he used to do against high school-level players, he's doing against college-level guys. The spins, the stiff-arms and most notably, the hurdles, are all things that you can find on his Hudl highlight tape. You typically don't see players who are able to do the same things on college fields that they were on high school fields, at least not consistently. He always keeps his legs churning and he never gives up on the play, no matter how dire it looks. He has been nothing short of electric, and is truly the key to the Nittany Lion offense.

INU: At this point, it would seem appropriate for Christian Hackenberg to legally change his last name to Sackenberg. (I'm sure you haven't heard that one before.) The Nittany Lions have given up 31 sacks, two away from the worst mark in the nation. Is that more a case of Hackenberg holding on to it too long, has the line really been that bad, or has it been a combination of the two?

NP: If I were to allocate blame, I would say it's 10% on Hackenberg holding the ball, 20% on the receivers being young and inexperienced, and 70% on the offensive line. It truly is as bad as it sounds. They've taken steps (albeit very small steps) since that Temple embarrassment, but they are still a well below average unit. The weakest link is the left guard spot, which has been a merry-go-round of two converted defensive tackles and an underperforming recruit.

The wide receiving corps' inexperience is a big deal though, and a factor that those who don't watch this team week in and week out don't typically notice. Their number one receiver is true sophomore Chris Godwin, and although he is a fantastic receiver, he is still learning the intricacies of running his routes. Basically, Hackenberg certainly has had places where he could have thrown a ball away, but the vast majority of the sacks he has taken this year have been thanks to his supporting cast.

INU: On the other side of the ball, Penn State has an outstanding defensive front, like by Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. Johnson's a massive man inside while Nassib and Zettel can really get after the quarterback. Northwestern's line has been decent protecting Clayton Thorson but has struggled mightily opening holes for the running backs the past few weeks. How do you see the trenches playing out, and why should Northwestern fans be worried about the Penn State front four?

Everyone should be worried about the Penn State front four. They're one of the very best defensive lines in the entire country, both in defending the pass and the run. Aside from the aforementioned running quarterbacks, the Nittany Lions have only truly been taken advantage of on the ground by Ezekiel Elliott and Jahad Thomas of Temple (and that was after starting MLB Nyeem Wartman-White was lost to injury). Aside from those performances, the Nittany Lion defense is equally strong against both sides of the offensive coin.

The way to beat this unit is to take advantage of the backups. Penn State has done a great job of rotating their second stringers in to keep their top line players fresh. This is most visible on the line, where they will usually keep either Johnson or Zettel in and surround them with the second team DL. The second stringers are no slouches, but they can't match up to the supreme talent they're subbing in for. When the defense has been beaten this year, it's been when the backups are on the field.

Regardless of who is on the field, however, look out for third and longs against this team. They know how to get after the quarterback better than any other team in the country.

INU: The Nittany Lions are 1-2 on the road, with that lone away win being the aforementioned escape against Maryland. This weekend, they're on the road again. Does that worry you? If not, what about this matchup does worry you?

I wouldn't say that being on the road is what scares me as a Penn State fan, rather the opponent. This team's two losses came on the road against two top-25 teams in Temple and Ohio State, so it's tough to make any assumptions about their prowess on the road thus far in 2015.

The thing that should have Penn State fans scared in this game is the Wildcat defense. I won't pretend that I've watched every Northwestern game this season, but it would appear that their defense has floundered a bit over their past three games (although saying a defense is floundering because they lost to Michigan and Iowa isn't really fair). Still, this defense is for real. Penn State's defense is their strongest unit, but even great defenses break down if they're on the field for too long. If the Wildcats are able to force Penn State into multiple three and outs, it could be a loooong day for James Franklin and his staff. Not to mention Penn State's horrific punting. They can't afford to give Northwestern a short field all day.

INU: What's your prediction for Saturday and why?

I'm really torn about this prediction. In my opinion, it will come down (as it usually does) to the play of Saquon Barkley. If he can get going and either force Northwestern to dedicate an extra man or two to stop him, or just go off like he did against Ohio State, then I think Penn State can win this game. If Barkley is bottled up, the Northwestern defense should have a field day again the Penn State offense.

Either way, it should be an extremely balanced game. If Clayton Thorson is able to do some damage with his legs, that will go a long way towards solving the Nittany Lion defense. But if you're asking me to give a gun-to-my-head prediction, I'll say Penn State 28, Northwestern 27. Northwestern will be the best defense the Lions have faced so far, but we've yet to see a game in which Barkley wasn't able to have a profound impact. If Northwestern had a bit more of a dynamic offense, this would be an easy pro-Northwestern pick for me.

It should be an interesting game that will give a much clearer picture of each of these teams heading into the final games of the season.