With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
After a huge game in Madison to close the month of September, things don’t get any easier for Northwestern to start October. The Wildcats return home to take on Penn State, an offensive juggernaut with serious Playoff aspirations.
Returning Starters: 16 (nine offensive, seven defensive)
Returning Experience: 74%
2016 Record: 11-3 (8-1 Big Ten)
Coach: James Franklin (4th year, 25-15 overall, 14-11 conference)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 8th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 18th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 14th
In 2016, despite most experts projecting Penn State to be a year or two away, James Franklin’s goal of restoring the Nittany Lions to national contention became a reality. Four games in, though, it seemed like the experts were going to be right. Penn State was 2-2, having just been absolutely outclassed in a 49-10 loss to Michigan. Wins over Kent State and Temple hadn’t proved anything, and in the only close game of their first month, the Nittany Lions had fallen to in-state rival Pitt 42-39.
Then Franklin’s team went on a two-month tear through the Big Ten and nearly into the College Football Playoff. It started with an OT victory over Minnesota. Then Saquon Barkley ran for 202 yards in a rout of Maryland. After the bye week, No. 2 Ohio State came into Happy Valley undefeated and looking to keep it that way. In front of 100,000 white-clad fans at Beaver Stadium and millions more watching on national television, Penn State scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, pulling out a 24-21 win and arriving back on the national map. Then came 62 points and 200 more yards for Barkley in a romp over Purdue. The Nittany Lions breezed through a 4-0 November in which they were never really tested. Penn State outscored its final five opponents (PU, Iowa, IU, Rutger, MSU) by a combined 232-81 and won the Big Ten East.
West champs Wisconsin awaited the Nittany Lions in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. After falling behind 28-7, sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley took over, leading Penn State to a 38-31 victory. Ultimately, two early losses were too much to overcome, as Penn State finished No. 5 in the final CFP rankings. A berth in the Rose Bowl is as good as consolation prizes get, and the McSorley-Barkley tandem once again showed out on national TV despite falling short in a 52-49 thriller against USC that may have been the best game of the entire college football season.
McSorley and Barkley are back. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
Okay, fine, I’ll go into a bit more depth. But really, the importance of that duo can’t be overstated. According to Land of 10, Penn State has the best quarterback and the best running back in the Big Ten. That’s...scary. McSorley, like Clayton Thorson, is entering his redshirt junior season and has an arrow pointing straight up. In his sophomore season, the gunslinger put up 3600 yards through the air, nearly 400 on the ground, and 36 total touchdowns with just 8 picks. He’s elusive in and out of the pocket, and despite his small stature (6-foot, 205 pounds), McSorley can make any throw you ask him to.
What’s the only potential problem? Chris Godwin, his No. 1 target, is gone. Godwin racked up over 2000 yards and 16 touchdowns the last two seasons, skipped his senior season and is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. That’s a tough loss, but Penn State is in a good position to overcome it. DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknail, and DeAndre Thompkins each recorded at least 340 receiving yards last season. Tight end Mike Gesicki is one of the best at his position in the country, and will become McSorley’s new No. 1 if none of the three WRs breaks out.
Oh yeah, then there’s Barkley. The Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year is a leading Heisman candidate and has routinely been ranked among the top RBs in the nation this offseason. His blend of power and breakaway speed is unmatched within the conference, and Barkley is effective as a receiver out of the backfield as well. The offensive line improved greatly under Matt Limegrover in 2016, and although it loses a few key pieces, there is solid depth. If the line can stay healthy, Barkley should run wild. A trio of solid backups, led by former five-star Miles Sanders, will spell him occasionally.
Offense gets all the headlines for Penn State, but its defense was equally important in the Rose Bowl run. The Nittany Lions finished 14th in defensive S&P+ (offense was 18th), and it was a unit that seemed to get stronger in the second halves of games as Penn State mounted comebacks. The defense was ripped apart in the three losses, but shined in the 11 wins, as Bill Connelly noted in his PSU preview:
In Penn State’s three losses, the Nittany Lions allowed a nightmarish 48 points per game and 6.3 yards per play; they scored at least 39 points and lost twice, which is almost a Texas Tech statistic.
In the other 11 games, though? 19.4 points per game and 4.7 yards per play. And two of the three losses happened early, when the linebacking corps was nuked.
Linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda missed time early in the season and gave the defense a major boost when they returned. Bell is gone, but Cabinda returns as the leader of a strong LB corps. He’ll be joined by Manny Bowen, but the third LB spot is still an unknown. On the defensive line, talented ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan are gone, but the tackle rotation is deep. The secondary lost one standout and had another get hurt this spring, but has four strong, experienced starters ready for 2017. Depth at the back end is a major question mark. Penn State has picked up some big-time recruits on the defensive end in recent classes, so there’s potential for young players to have breakout seasons. Redshirt freshman DE Shane Simmons is a name to watch there..
Players to Know
Note: You should know who McSorley and Barkley are by now.
TE Mike Gesicki
Gesicki has a very real chance to be the best tight end in the country in 2017. He’s coming off a strong 48/679/5 season, but will almost certainly have an ever greater role in the passing game as a senior. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder with great hands is a handful to cover over the middle, especially in the red zone.
S Marcus Allen
With No. 1 CB John Reid being lost for the season in April, Allen’s presence becomes even more important for the Penn State secondary. He led the Nittany Lions with 110 tackles last season, including 6 TFLs, and will need to step up even more without fellow safety Malik Golden, who graduated.
WR Saeed Blacknall
Among the three main returning receivers, Thompkins and Hamilton were the most productive in 2016. Blacknall is the most enticing talent. He caught just 15 balls last season, but averaged a ridiculous 23.1 yards per catch. The year before that, he caught 8 passes and averaged over THIRTY yards per catch. If Blacknall can go from home-run threat to well-rounded receiver, watch out. His 6/155/2 line against Wisconsin in Indy showed promise for the WR who’s a perfect fit with McSorley’s arm.