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Northwestern vs. Penn State: Three things to know about the Nittany Lions

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Right now, Penn State is the best team in the Big Ten.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern has another very tough Big Ten matchup this weekend as Penn State is coming to town. Let’s look at three things you need to know about Penn State.

1. Saquon Barkley is a force of nature, and the current Heisman frontrunner.

I’ll start with the numbers first. The man has 960 yards from scrimmage, 6 touchdowns and a return touchdown through FIVE GAMES! That’s...that’s impossible! He’s averaging 192 yards from scrimmage per game!

Next, we have the context. How’s Penn State’s offensive line? By all accounts, it’s not very good! It’s probably the weakest part of the team. Does that matter for Saquon Barkley? Nope. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry, and besides, his danger as a pass-catching back makes up for what the offensive line doesn’t give him.

What else? He’s also probably the best blocking running back in the Big Ten. He’s got all the intangibles, never takes plays off, and is not afraid to get hit repeatedly. He’s as good as advertised, and Northwestern is going to throw the kitchen sink and more to stop him. Paddy Fisher, Brett Walsh, and Tyler Lancaster have to be on their game at all times. The offense needs to play a role too; Northwestern needs to bleed the clock out as much as possible.

I’m going to say Northwestern needs to limit him to under 160 yards from scrimmage to claim a success in this game. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Iowa played the best out of Penn State’s opponents this season...and he had 305 yards from scrimmage (211 rushing, 94 receiving).

2. Penn State’s defense is also pretty good.

You probably don’t know the names on Penn State’s defense. You should learn them quickly. The Lions have forced 14 turnovers through five games and those turnovers have led to 77 points for the Penn State offense. Needless to say, Northwestern could be out of the game very quickly if it turns the ball over at any point.

Cornerback Christian Campbell has had a pass breakup in six straight games and is having a very good senior season. Free safety Marcus Allen and strong safety Troy Apke might not be quite as good as Godwin Igwebuike, but they are still a ball-hawking secondary tandem that could give Thorson trouble. The Lions also have a standout linebacker in Jason Cabinda, who made 14 tackles and recorded a sack against Indiana last week.

If there’s any weakness, it would be that the pass rush is merely average, as the team still hasn’t fully recovered from the graduation of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. The team has 13 sacks on the year, but only recorded one sack against both Indiana and Iowa. Unfortunately, the run defense is not a weakness, as Penn State has already had 44 tackles for loss this season.

3. Penn State’s passing offense hasn’t been that good, surprisingly.

Despite the hype surrounding Trace McSorley, the Penn State passing game hasn’t been quite as explosive as some would’ve expected. The Lions’ passing success rate is 44.4 percent, good enough for No. 40 in the country, but not really enough for a top-tier passing attack. Even more surprisingly, they are only 52nd in the country in passing IsoPPP (isolated points per play, measures explosiveness). For an offense that finished fourth in the nation in that stat in 2016, that’s a huge dropoff.

Obviously, Penn State hasn’t necessarily been hurt by this lack of a passing game with Saquon Barkley in the backfield, but it is something to consider. The offensive line hasn’t been quite up to par, as we saw in the Iowa game, and Northwestern’s pass rushers could be a problem. Their passing down sack rate is a staggering 13.2 percent, which ranks 115th in the country.

Tight end Mike Gesicki left last weekend’s game against Indiana with an injury, another blow to the Penn State passing offense. His status is unclear for Saturday. Could Northwestern have another game in which the opposing team’s All-Big Ten-caliber tight end is out? We shall see.