Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's matchup against Northwestern.
The idea behind The Blitz? Since 2004, former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal have provided a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions.
MH: The blowout of Illinois was PSU’s most complete game thus far on both sides of the ball, which gives the Nittany Lions some momentum heading into the homestretch of the season. Next they have the Wildcats, who pounced early but have had some stumbles late. PSU has had challenges on the road, but you have to wonder if the squad has found its spark to finish out strong.
ND: Last week Penn State put together not only its best win of the season, but arguably the best win in James Franklin’s tenure in Happy Valley. PSU’s offense was efficient and diverse. The defense completely shut down Illinois’ aerial attack. The only low point was the special teams’ performance. The Wildcats started out hot this season by beating Stanford, Duke and Minnesota. But they were trounced by both Iowa and Michigan. They have had a bye week to get prepared for this game.
Who: Penn State (7-2, 4-1) @ Northwestern (6-2, 2-2)
When: Saturday, noon ET
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
Series: Penn State leads 13-4
Line: Northwestern -2.5 as of Thursday night
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where James Franklin's Nittany Lions stand heading into the game.
AIR IT OUT: Last week, Christian Hackenberg had the performance fans have been waiting for, going 21 for 29 for 266 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. If that weren't enough, he also pulled in a 14-yard touchdown catch. Hackenberg may have turned the corner and should benefit from a major confidence boost from the Illinois blowout. Watch for him to carry that into Evanston.
MAX PROTECT: Penn State’s offensive line deserves a ton of credit, blocking for 400 yards and 39 points against the Illini. Many pundits had Illinois’ defensive line dominating the Lion O-line, but the unit impressed despite giving up three sacks.
PUSH IT: The D-line played another strong game, and also got plenty of help from the LBs and DBs in blanking Illinois. The challenge here is another mobile QB (Clayton Thorson), the type of run/pass threat who has given PSU defense fits at times this season.
NOT SO SPECIAL: Joey Julius had a tough day with two botched extra points last week. The good news is Tyler Davis stepped in to hit two field goals, including a 42-yarder. The question is whether the coaches give Julius another shot in a game where points are likely to be precious.
RED DAWN: Another upswing for PSU coming out of Illinois was the offense’s red zone performance, going seven for seven thanks to some diverse play-calling and a bit of innovation. If the Lions can keep up that trend, it’ll pay dividends in this game on both sides of the ball.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
ND: Let’s take a look at Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats.
HAMMER TIME: Though only a redshirt freshman, Thorson has turned some heads since getting the starting spot. He is an excellent runner and that is something that has given Penn State problems. Over time, he will become an excellent QB, but he’s not quite there. His accuracy is not great. He has struggled mightily in two losses – completing less than 50 percent of his passes being held below 150 yards passing against Michigan and Iowa. Look for Penn State to load the box with S Marcus Allen and see if Thorson can complete some passes against man coverage.
JUST IN TIME: RB Justin Jackson was a real focal point for this team early in the season but his touches in the last few games has dramatically declined. He is a smaller back at 5-foot-1, 185 pounds, but he does have good hands and does follow his blocks very well. I look for Northwestern to come out of the bye week with a heavy focus of the read option and trying to get Jackson more involved in the offense.
HE’S A PTP’ER: Dan Vitale is the leading receiver for the Wildcats out of their “Superback” or H-back position. Vitale created tons of issues for Penn State last year and was a major reason that Northwestern clobbered the Lions. He is a big, strong player with fantastic hands. I think this is the matchup to watch this week – how will Bob Shoop find a way neutralize Vitale while also defending against a running QB.
DON’T WALK, RUN: LB Anthony Walker had a fantastic freshman campaign for the Wildcats. In his sophomore year, he’s picking right up where he left off. Last fall Walker had a monster game against Penn State that was topped off with an interception that he returned for a touchdown. He leads the team in tackles and TFLs. Hackenberg will be looking at him pre-snap to ensure that the offense is prepared.
NICK OF TIME: CB Nick VanHoose is one of those players who seems like he’s been around for 15 years. VanHoose started as a freshman and he’s finally a senior this year. He is an experienced, physical and talented corner. He is one of the better DBs in the league and the Wildcats use that to their advantage. They love to throw a ton of pressure at the opposing QB and then play man coverage behind it because guys like VanHoose can handle being on an island. Penn State WRs have to get separation quickly in order to give Hackenberg some options before the pressure lands in his lap.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: Defensive discipline will be instrumental in this game. Penn State’s defense has shown a propensity to misread the read-option, pulling off assignments and getting baited on runs. If that happens, Northwestern will mount drives and start to find success and confidence. However, if the front can play assignment football and get some key tackles for loss, it will create needed opportunities for the offense.
ND: Tick, tock, tick, tock. This game comes down to time. Though Thorson will provide some issues for the Lions, I think this game will come down to Penn State’s ability to protect Hackenberg. Last week the line did a great job pass blocking and offensive coordinator John Donovan called plays that allowed Hackenberg to get rid of the ball quickly. Northwestern will be blitzing like crazy in this game, so if the offensive line can give Hackenberg time, I think the offense can have some real success. So time truly is of the essence.
MH: Northwestern pounced early in the season, but hasn’t been as fierce recently. I expect the Wildcats to come out tough against Penn State, but watch for PSU to carry some momentum from the Illinois game into this one.
Penn State 24, Northwestern 17
ND: Northwestern started out hot but has fizzled as of late. The offense is struggling and the defense is not getting pressure on QBs, as it did early in the season. Penn State showed tremendous progress last week and I think it continues this week.
Penn State 28, Northwestern 20
Until next time,
Fight On State!