Northwestern welcomes Penn State to Evanston and Ryan Field Saturday at 11 a.m. CT in a game that will play a huge role in deciding where the Wildcats head during bowl season. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) is coming off a 30-28 win at Nebraska, while the Nittany Lions (7-2, 4-1) are fresh off a 39-0 shutout of Illinois.
For full coverage of the game, in which the Wildcats are 2-point favorites, head here. For our staff's game predictions, read on:
Henry Bushnell: Northwestern 19, Penn State 17
Penn State is a better team than Northwestern. In fact, when it comes to talent, if it weren't for the offensive line, the Nittany Lions would be a lot closer to the conference's heavyweights than you might think. But James Franklin is not a good football coach. I don't trust him to design an effective gameplan to attack this Northwestern defense, and I think a few big plays — perhaps on special teams, perhaps when Thorson escapes the pocket — will make the difference for the Wildcats.
Josh Rosenblat: Penn State 31, Northwestern 23
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By squeaking out a win over Nebraska two weeks ago, Northwestern did little to impress me. The offense remained stagnant, save for a few creative plays from Clayton Thorson, and the defense made way too many mistakes on the back end. Christian Hackenberg is good enough to exploit those mistakes if Northwestern's not able to get pressure on him. That will be the key. And the Wildcats' defensive line has been up and down all season.
Zach Pereles: Northwestern 17, Penn State 14
Penn State's defensive front is outstanding against the pass, yes, but it isn't all that great that great against the run, ranking 44th in the nation according to S&P+. To put that in perspective, the average rank of the only two teams that have beaten the Wildcats is 3.5. Michigan is second, Iowa fifth. Northwestern shows a renewed commitment to the run and gets a ton of Christian Hackenberg all day. The ‘Cats defense, boosted by the return of Matt Harris, locks up the Nittany Lions' attack en route to squeezing out a close victory.
Ian McCafferty: Northwestern 14, Penn State 12
Anybody remember last year's parents weekend game? (#M00N) Well I don't think the parents are going to be getting much better football this year. However, if you like sacks this is the game for you! Carl Nassib will pretty much be able to do whatever he wants on Saturday, as will Dean Lowry to a lesser extent. Both Christian Hackenberg and Clayton Thorson will be running for their lives all day, but as we saw two weeks ago that might actually favor the Wildcats. I think it's a low scoring game where Justin Jackson gets back on track and Thorson does just enough to win.
Nate Williams: Northwestern 24 , Penn State 21
Penn State has been playing much better football of late, and I certainly do not see the 29-6 drubbing that Northwestern put on Penn State last year. I think Hackenberg is starting to look a lot more like he did under Bill O'Brian's tutelage which could pose a scary threat for NU if PSU's O-line can hold it together better than last year. I think Penn State forces a close game, but can't get enough going on offense to pull ahead of Northwestern's defense. Predict the usual suspects of a big special teams play and a couple key turnovers to be the big factor in determining this game.
Tristan Jung: Northwestern 22, Penn State 17
After last week's excellent performance against Nebraska, Northwestern's run defense will have to continue its success in order to shut down Penn State freshman Saquon Barkley, who was recently rated as Pro Football Focus' second-best true freshman so far this season. Christian Hackenberg has been a tad inconsistent this season, and Northwestern's pass defense has shown it can remain disciplined and force some bad decisions. Although Hackenberg has not thrown an interception since Week 3, the return of cornerback Matt Harris should provide stability in the secondary. I also expect a bounceback game for Justin Jackson and the cohort of Northwestern backs, and Clayton Thorson can always break off a huge play. As with most of Northwestern's home games, this will be a defense-heavy game, but I think Northwestern will prevail by less than one touchdown.
Sam Brief: Penn State 24, Northwestern 14
I hate to go against the majority here, but I think the Nittany Lions take this one. Look for Carl Nassib and an extremely talented ("nightmare" as Fitz put it) defensive line to dominate a middling Northwestern offensive line and for an efficient Christian Hackenberg (2 INT on the season) to give Penn State enough offense to beat the ‘Cats by 10. As Henry said, Penn State is the better team. I expect that to show on Saturday.
Zach Wingrove: Penn State 24, Northwestern 13
I'm going to have to agree with Sam on this one. The Nittany Lions defense as a whole may not be as solid as Michigan's or Iowa's, but this defensive line is one of (if not the best) in the country. I think Carl Nassib will be able to force pressure and Northwestern's receivers won't be able to get open for Thorson. I think everyone has been expecting a bounce back game from Jackson ever since he rushed for just 25 yards against Michigan and we still haven't gotten it-I don't expect that to change this week running against that Penn State's defensive line. On defense, Matt Harris' return will help, but I still think Hackenberg will be able to dump it off to either Barkley or his tight ends throughout the game and the Wildcats will not have an answer.
Martin Oppegaard: Northwestern 23, Penn State 17
While Penn State has looked good lately, they don't have a single win that impresses me. This game will not be that win. Northwestern's defense gets to Hackenberg late with a game-sealing interception and the offensive line weathers the terrifying Penn State D-Line to give Thorson enough time to create plays. This game will ultimately come down to the little things, special teams and winning the turnover battle, two facets that Coach Fitz has preached all season. If Northwestern takes care of the football, I think they come out with a one possession win.