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Why Northwestern will/won't beat Penn State

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Coming off its bye week, can Northwestern come away with a big home victory against Penn State?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.

This week, the Wildcats look for the second straight win as they welcome the Penn State Nittany Lions to Ryan Field. The Nittany Lions started the season off with a 27-10 loss to Temple but have managed to go 7-1 since then, with their only other loss coming against Ohio State 38-10. The top of the Big Ten East standings is crowded with top level teams such as No. 3 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan State and No. 17 Michigan; and while Penn State is not currently ranked in the top 25 of the College Football Playoff standings, a win against the No. 21 ranked Wildcats could possibly vault them in.

While it seems like a long shot that either of these teams will be playing in the Big Ten Championships, both teams are already bowl eligible and Saturday's game will have major implications on positioning for this season's bowl games, so here are the reasons Northwestern will/won't beat Penn State.

Why Northwestern will lose to Penn State

1. Northwestern will not have success on the ground

It's no secret that Northwestern has struggled to establish a running game in the last couple weeks. Whether the cause of that is due to the team falling behind early, poor running blocking, or predictable play calling, Justin Jackson has totaled just 95 yards on 36 carries during his last three games. Last season against Penn State, Jackson had one of his least productive Big Ten games of the season, as he rushed for just 50 yards on 15 carries. This year, Jackson will hope to break out of his recent slump by having a big game against the Nittany Lions.

That's a daunting task though. Penn State actually only ranks 44th in the country in S&P+ rush defense, but it is led by three of the best defensive players in the country along the defensive line in Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. The senior defensive end Nassib currently leads the NCAA in total sacks with 14.5 (the next closest player is 4 sacks behind that) and tackles for loss with 18.5 (2.5 ahead of any player). Nassib, along with the two defensive tackles Zettel and Johnson, have combined for just over 20 percent of Penn State's defense's total tackles, which demonstrates the dominant play we've seen all season from the Nittany Lions' defensive front.

This Penn State defensive line could be Northwestern's worst nightmare on offense, especially for a team that has struggled to sustain a rushing attack recently and protect the quarterback. If Zettel and Johnson clog up the line of scrimmage, while Nassib wrecks havoc coming from the outside (the Nittany Lions' overall defensive havoc rate ranks No. 5 in the nation, while their defensive line's havoc rate ranks best in the country), then the Wildcats could struggle to run the ball for a fourth straight week.
2. Northwestern can't protect Thorson

Passing the ball has been a major obstacle for Northwestern all season. This week, Northwestern faces a Penn State defense that ranks 4th in the country in S&P+ pass defense. Much of the Nittany Lions' success has come from being able to pressure the quarterback, thanks to their aforementioned stellar defensive line. Penn State ranks second in the country with a 15.6% sack rate on passing downs (over double the national average), and currently ranks No. 1 in the nation in team sacks, averaging four a game.

Northwestern's pass protection has actually been better than you think though. Although the standard down opponent sack rate ranks 99th nationally, the Wildcats' passing down opponent sack rate has been stellar. Through eight games, it sits at 2.3 percent, the sixth best mark in the country. Part of that has been play design. The offense has been structured to get the ball out of Thorson's hands quickly, often to a fault, but that might be necessary against Penn State. Thorson will need to identify blitzes too, and get rid of the ball quickly.

The key matchup on the line will be Northwestern's 6-foot-5, 300-pound freshman left tackle Blake Hance blocking the 6-foot-7, 272-pound senior Nassib. Hance will need to be able to keep Nassib away from Thorson as much as possible in order to allow Thorson to settle into the game and get into a rhythm offensively. If Hance is unable to do so, and especially if Nassib can get to Thorson on standard downs, NU could be in trouble.

3. Penn State is able to run the ball
Penn State's rushing attack is led by freshman running back Saquon Barkley, who is currently averaging 6.6 yards per carry and ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 716 yards this season. In his first season, Barkley has already proven to be one of the most elusive backs in the conference, and has given opposing defenses fits all season

A quick look at a highlight of his shows why:

Barkley's elusiveness could pose as a major problem for the Wildcats on Saturday if they can't tackle at the point of attack. Barkley has shown exceptional speed when he gets into the open field. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson will not only be important as pass rushers, but they'll need to contain Barkley in the running game. Drew Smith and Jaylen Prater will also have important roles.

Why Northwestern will beat Penn State

1. The return of Matt Harris drastically improves the secondary
It was officially confirmed in Thursday's injury report that junior cornerback Matt Harris will be returning for the Wildcats on Saturday. Harris' return is crucial, as he is one of the biggest playmakers in the secondary (he leads the team with three interceptions on the season) and excels at playing man coverage. Also, as our Henry Bushnell mentioned on Thursday, Harris' return allows Keith Watkins to move back to the slot, which is where he is most comfortable. In the Wildcats' two games with Watkins filling in for Harris, it appeared opposing quarterbacks were targeting Watkins on the outside. Northwestern's passing defense has been excellent when it has had VanHoose and Harris playing together, and the presence of those two allows defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to play more press man on the outside. If Harris and VanHoose can lock up the Nittany Lions' top two receivers, sophomores Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton, Northwestern will be in great shape. Those two have accounted for 50 percent of the team's targets this season, and are two of the most talented receivers NU has seen this season.
2. Penn State's offensive line will struggle

While Penn State is able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it has struggled offensively to protect its own quarterback. The Nittany Lions rank No. 122 in the country in adjusted sack rate this year, and have allowed Hackenberg to be sacked 30 times this season, twice as many times as any other Big Ten quarterback.

One key question is whether Hankwitz feels he needs to blitz to get pressure on Hackenberg. On one hand, the return of Harris at cornerback will allow the front seven to focus less on coverage. Perhaps NU will decide that it only needs four to penetrate the defensive backfield. Getting pressure with four would be massive, but even if Northwestern needs to send five or six at the junior quarterback, it must do whatever it takes to get pressure on him.

3. Clayton Thorson makes plays with his legs
Last week against Nebraska, Thorson had his best rushing performance of the season, as he ran for 126 yards and a touchdown on nine attempts. However his two biggest runs (68 and 49 yards) came off broken plays, passing plays on which Thorson made the decision to tuck it and run instead of taking a chance downfield. Thorson's dual-threat capabilities should come into play against Penn State as well, seeing that Penn State has had their fair share of struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks so far this season.

In two of the last three weeks, the Nittany Lions allowed Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett to run for 102 yards and two touchdowns, and Maryland quarterback Perry Hills to run for 124 yards a touchdown. Thorson has proven to be very effective running the ball at times this season, but he's also struggled with designed running plays that call his number, such as the triple or speed options. His straightline speed is good, but when asked to go east-west, Thorson hasn't been as impressive. So if Thorson can improvise again this week and create big plays on the ground when he can't find an open receiver, the Wildcats offense will have that new dimension that we saw in the Nebraska game. Thorson being able to run will also force Penn State's defensive line to have to contain him rather than blitz, which would lead to more time in the pocket for Thorson to throw.