I’m picking Northwestern to beat Penn State tomorrow. Most people see it unlikely — as NU has looked terrible in its last 11 games. Still, bad teams have good games, and the Wildcats have their first opportunity to steal one on the road. I’m not altogether sold on NU being able to turn around its season. I’m not betting on it. But this game projects well for one primary reason.
I wrote last week that Northwestern needs to bench Trevor Siemian. They should have. He’s been mediocre for his entire career as a starting quarterback. He played poorly in each of the first three games, and definitely cost them a chance of beating Cal in the opener.
That said, NU can figure out what it does well. Suddenly, it has three reliable running backs in a barely competitive Big Ten. Justin Jackson is an epiphany. The true freshman leads the team in carries (41), yards (184) and sits tied with Solomon Vault after scoring two touchdowns in the first three games.
Vault — once thought of as purely a slot receiver in his first year — evolved into an immediate goal line threat against Western Illinois. They can use his skillset well. Treyvon Green, meanwhile, looks good as the senior “backup” in the rotation. It’s been difficult for him in the early season, but he’s very qualified to get carries behind younger future stars.
So, why not turn to the run? The way to beat Penn State is to utilize a run-oriented attack. Trevor Siemian has been largely inept at spreading the ball successfully, which leaves them with one option. There’s no sense in chucking the ball around the field in a difficult environment; he failed to do well in Happy Valley his first time around.
Their strength will never lie at quarterback — even if they smartly move to Zack Oliver. Penn State will thrive on drawing NU into third-and-long situations. NU’s strength might always lie in its surprisingly deep group of running backs. Vault, Jackson and Green provide enough variety to challenge defenses. Plus, this approach would avoid interceptions — probably the easiest way to blow another one.
The only problem is that offensive coordinator Mick McCall will never be known for quick adjustments, or even creativity in big game situations. It makes no sense to place an emphasis on Trevor if they want to win an important and potentially season defining game. As a skilled coordinator, he’s smart enough to make the shift.
Their season splits read: 110 passes, 114 rushes. That’s close to good but also looks slanted toward the run-oriented attack against a weak Western Illinois team. I could argue that Jackson, Treyvon and Vault need more carries, and that can only be facilitated by a conservative but smart offensive approach.
You could also argue that NU will need to win with its defense, and use its play making secondary to force Christian Hackenberg into “hero ball” mode. Even with Collin Ellis out — and Anthony Walker in — Northwestern has been fine on defense. Nick VanHoose looks better and able. Matt Harris has been shaky but still has the potential to be an All-Big Ten talent. They won’t beat a talented team without strong defense.
We all keep saying it: NU can’t stick to the same formula if it wants to start winning. It’s all about emphasizing what’s right. Those sorts of things can win games.