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.
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
Why Northwestern will beat Penn State
1. The return of Matt Harris drastically improves the secondary
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.