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Northwestern-Penn State preview: Three key matchups

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Saturday will be a tough test for the Wildcats.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Football is an 11-on-11 game, but when it comes down to it, you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Big Ten foes Northwestern and Penn State.

Northwestern's edge defenders vs. Saquon Barkley

Much has been written about Barkley this week, and for good reason. He's Penn State's best player, and may be the biggest talent in all of college football. Pat Fitzgerald said earlier this week that Barkley might be the best player he's ever seen on tape. Where Barkley is incredible is when he gets out in space, which allows him to use to hyper-quick cutting ability and speed.

For that reason, it will be crucial for Northwestern's defensive ends and outside linebackers to contain Barkley and funnel him toward Paddy Fisher in the middle of the field. Joe Gaziano, Sam Miller and the ends will need to be careful not to get too far up the field on pass rushes, and Nate Hall, Brett Walsh and the outer backers will have to sound in their pursuit and strong in their tackling. Barkley will inevitably get to the defense's second level Saturday, but it's crucial it happens in the middle of the field, where Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Jared McGee typically roam. If Barkley gets to the edge, look out.

Bennett Skowronek vs. Christian Campbell

Northwestern needs to get something going down the field, and Skowronek has been the team's biggest deep threat this season as a big-bodied target. Campbell presents an interesting matchup should he line up against Skowronek, which would seem likely since he's a bigger corner at 6-foot-1 and 194 pounds. Skowronek's catch rate of 81 percent is the highest of any of the team's top receivers, so Clayton Thorson has had great success when targeting Skowronek this season. Whether Thorson has the time to find the sophomore receiver is another issue, but if Skowronek can generate a big play or two to flip field position or create a score, Northwestern could keep the game closer than many people think.

Shareef Miller vs. Northwestern's offensive tackles

Miller has been a force off the edge for James Franklin's team this season, notching six tackles for loss and two sacks so far on the season. Northwestern's inability to keep Thorson clean has really inhibited the offense's ability to get chunks of yardage consistently. Miller is an uber-talented rusher with a quick first step, so the tackles — Blake Hance, Rashawn Slater and others — will need to be strong against Miller. If Penn State only rushes four, the line absolutely has to hold up if Northwestern has any chance to move the ball proficiently.