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ND: The Lions are coming off of a huge win in Ann Arbor and now return to the scene of what probably sparked the Penn State turnaround. Back in 2005, Michael Robinson, Isaac Smolko and Derrick Williams were the key contributors in a drive that helped return the Lions to national prominence. They Lions still have every hope of getting into a BCS bowl game and with a big date next week against Ohio State, the Lions need to first focus on the Wildcats, who are able to score points and cause headaches. They are the Cardiac Cats.
MH: The Ann Arbor monkey has been punted, but who thought the Lions would win by 25 up north? Well, FOS contributor and former Nittany Lion offensive lineman Keith Conlin called it with a 30-3 pick. I guess lineman are pretty darn smart. Now the Lions head to Illinois to face Northwestern, who is coming off a major comeback victory over Indiana. The weather could be nasty again, so the Nitts will have to protect the ball.
Who: No. 12 Penn State at Northwestern
When: October 31th at 4:30 pm ET and 1:30 pm PT
Where: Ryan Field in Evanston, IL
Series: Penn State leads 9-3
Line: Penn State favored by 13.5 points
Other Big Games This Weekend:
ND: The Pac-10 may not play a championship game but it is essentially this weekend when USC heads to Eugene to face the Ducks of Oregon. Oregon is 6-1 with the lone loss being to Boise State in what was a real slap (punch) to the face. But, since that time, Oregon has played the 3 worst teams in the conference and handled them easily. The competition takes a big step up this week. USC must win this game in order to get back to the Rose Bowl and, maybe, still stay in the national championship picture. I like the Trojans in this one. The Duck defense hasn't really been tested and I'm not convinced that the QB situation in Oregon is solved. Masoli is not the answer but I guess we'll see this weekend.
MH: Good pick, but also keep an eye on the Southwest as No. 3 Texas heads to No. 14 Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are 6-1 and looking to make a Big 12 statement by knocking off the Longhorns, a team they have not beaten in the last 11 attempts. It will be interesting to see what the Cowboys throw at Texas, since they have their eyes on a Big 12 South title, but Texas has been formidable and able to pull out victories all season long with McCoy at the helm.
ND: I don't see a whole lot of upset potential on the slate this week. So, I'll go against the Hawkeyes yet again. If not for the last second heroics of Ricky Stanzi, the Hawkeyes would have fallen back to earth. But, the loss of RB Adam Robinson and left guard Dace Richardson is substantial. The defense will continue to dominate teams but the question will be if the offense can produce enough points to navigate through this season. Indiana isn't that good of a football team but as was witnessed in the first quarter of the Northwestern game last week, they can score points quickly. I like Iowa winning this game because it's in Kinnick Stadium but I think this game is going to be much closer than the 17.5 point spread on this game.
MH: Everyone seems to be picking the Hawkeyes every week, but I think they will pull out another win over the Hoosiers, mainly because they are home. However, they still have to go to Columbus in a few weeks. My upset special is Tennessee over South Carolina. Tennessee has given games to big time teams, losing a series of tight games this year. The only lost to Bama by two points, and with this game at home, I think the Vols have a good shot to knock off the No. 22 Gamecocks.
ND: The offense showed in a big way against the Wolverines. Granted, the Wolverines are still a shell of what they used to be but they are probably one of the better defenses that the Lions have faced at this point other than Iowa. I loved the balance of pass and run and both Clark and Royster have really stepped up their game. Clark is one of the most accurate passers in the country and Royster is showing that even with the loss of Green that he is able to shoulder the load.
The key to the performance of both units has been the offensive line. These guys have really pulled things together and are starting to move people. They still struggle when it's an obvious running situation and Graham did make a ton of plays but a guy like that will always make plays. And, the Lions will face another one of those types of players this week in Corey Wootton. Wootton may not have the stats but he is a very good defensive end. The entire Wildcat defense is very experienced, which helps because I thought the linebackers take bad angles and over-commit to their initial read. This is what has allowed teams to get a number of big plays against the Cats. I like the play-action in this game and hitting Quarless right down the seam. With the emergence of Zug and Moye, the safeties are going to be cheating to the WRs. This should leave Quarless in 1-on-1 with a LB, as he was against Ezeh, and that's got big play written all over it.
I also think the addition of Joe Suhey in the running game is a great decision. By lining up Royster in the slot, it is causing defenses to shift a LB to the other edge of the box, which is opening things up for Suhey to pound it right up the middle.
The Lions are adapting the offense more this year than I have seen in previous years and that's what's making it difficult for defenses to predict what is coming. And, since the Wildcat defense isn't that good to start with, this spells big trouble.
MH: No matter the issues Michigan is facing, which are plenty, this is a major win for Penn State if for nothing more than the psyche of the program (and fans). Shaking the stigma of being unable to win in Columbus and Ann Arbor should pay dividends for the PSU program down the road. Clark, who was voted as the FOS Player of the Michigan Game by Penn State fans, had a big game and really stepped up when many were doubting the Lions could pull it off.
What was really impressive to me was the ability of Penn State's receivers, particularly WRs Derek Moye, Graham Zug and TE Andrew Quarless, to tear through the Michigan secondary, which we pointed out was suspect. The fact PSU has so many targets who have emerged as go-to weapons for Clark has really opened up things on offense and created fits for opposing defenses.
Northwestern has issues with their secondary which I suspect PSU will look to exploit. As you said Nirav, watch for Quarless to get his fair share of looks since he has shown a propensity to manage linebacker coverage. The big concern is the it is looking like it could be another case of raw, sloppy conditions. Fortunately, PSU has had a good amount of experience with the rain and wind.
As for the running game, Royster rolled up another 100-yard performance, but as you astutely pointed out Suhey has emerged as a potent weapon in the ground game, running and blocking. I also think the experience Brandon Beachum got against U-M is invaluable. I think we'll see a heavy dose of Royster in this game if PSU can pull back the coverage with some successful passing.
The PSU offensive line, which had it's ups and downs last weekend, is starting to come together in my view and getting together on their shifts and pulls. They will have to have a similar approach to Wooten as Graham. Wooten will make plays, but the important thing to remember is to limit and contain those plays. Wooten will be able to apply pressure, so watch for the PSU staff to keep in an extra blocker on Clark's hip just in case.
ND: The Lions had a big challenge facing Rich Rodriguez's offense last week and they passed that test with flying colors. They face another challenge this week. The Wildcats employ what I call the Purdue or Missouri version of the spread. They like to throw the ball in short quick patterns. Mike Kafka is the one throwing the ball all over the place and he's pretty efficient. He's completing 66.1 percent of his passes. Also, Kafka is the leading rusher on this team. He's not super fast but he's kind of elusive. After preparing for the running ability of Forcier, Kafka shouldn't present anything running the ball that the Lions won't be ready for. From time-to-time, they will hand off to Arby Fields. But, this running attack is very toothless. Neither Kafka or Fields are particularly good runners. Plus, the Northwestern offensive line is extremely young. The Wildcats start a freshman, three sophomores and a junior. They are not run blocking well and they are also giving up 2 sacks per game. This should mean a field day for Odrick, Crawford and Bowman in making plays behind the line of scrimmage. This offensive line won't be able to run block the Lions front-seven and this will put the Wildcats in obvious passing situations right away. In fact, I expect Northwestern to all but abandon the run by the second half since they will be behind and they will have no success running.
However, the passing attack of the Wildcats should not be overlooked. Kafka has a good group of wide receivers. His favorite target is Zeke Markshausen, who is also his roommate. Zeke is averaging seven catches per game but each reception is relatively close to the line of scrimmage. They like to use Zeke over the middle or on quick out patterns. The guy that stretches the field is Andrew Brewer. This guy is a very good receiver. He has good size and very good speed. He has caught five of Kafka's nine TDs this year. The Lions will have to use their nickel coverage and use Lee in pass coverage because the Wildcats will throw a 5-wide set out there. There will be plenty of opportunities for picked passes here. The Lion linebackers have done an exceptional job coming up with picks this year. In fact, the linebackers have four picks while the secondary has come up with six. That's not bad for a bunch of guys that are more known to be run stoppers.
This Wildcat passing attack is well suited for this inexperienced offensive line. As is the case in the running game, the line will struggle keeping the pass rush off of Kafka. But, since Northwestern likes to get rid of the ball quickly, it should allow Northwestern to move the ball through the air. I'm interested to see how close the corners play to the line of scrimmage in this one.
MH: I think Penn State's defense played a great game overall. The first drive had most PSU fans concerned, but the adjustments and containment they played was impressive, particularly keeping Forcier in the pocket which took him out of his comfort zone and really impacted his play. I expect to see a similar approach to how they square up on Kafka. Watch for the defense to play "box in" and try to fence in Kafka into the pocket to neutralize his running ability. The issue for the defense is that Kafka has solid vision and can see lanes develop quickly.
I know the PSU secondary has taken some hits this season, but I think they are playing solid ball that needs to just more consistency. As you pointed out Nirav, Brewer is Kafka's key target, so I think we will see some bracket coverage on him, but A.J. Wallace and D'Anton Lynn are proving to be a good corner duo in recent weeks. Markshausen is a favorite, but Northwestern will need to have him on deeper routes to play the possession role if PSU is locking up Brewer. The Lion safeties have to play hard and fast coverage here and make sure they watch the play action and get good reads (and footing) on their breaks.
As for the linebackers, Navorro Bowman had a stellar game, but I'd love to See, like many other PSU fans, Sean Lee get some substantial playing time. It's killing him sitting on the sideline for the bulk of these games since his college career is ticking down quickly and he knows it. One guy I want to tip my hat to is Josh Hull. Hull has continued to make big plays despite a myriad of criticism throughout the Nittany Nation ranks. He is by no means one of those legendary linebackers PSU pumps out, but he is a consistent force who has been instrumental in the front seven's success.
ND: After another bad day protecting punts, the Lions are focused on punt coverage this week. However, Wagner was solid in kick action this past Saturday. The tail wind gave a couple of kicks that needed extra boost. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have a very good kicker in Stefan Demos. He's 11 for 12 on the season and has a 49 yarder to his credit. Coach Fitzgerald asks Demos to handle punting duties too but he has left quite a bit to be desired there. He's averaging an abysmal 35.1 yards per punt with a long of 46 yards. In other words, his longest punt is awfully close to what Jeremy Boone averages!
MH: Boone has to get his steps situation nailed down. The slow pace of his punts are contributing to these blocks and are of concern when PSU is in a tight game (see Iowa). Overall though Wagner had a big game, as did Boone. PSU should have the overall edge in special teams here, but sloppy weather could even things up.
Matchup to Kick Back and Enjoy:
ND: The Penn State secondary will be tested again by a tough passing attack of the Wildcats. Kafka gets rid of the football very quickly and lets his receivers make plays with the ball. Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer are solid receivers in this offense and I think A.J. Wallace and D'Anton Lynn will have their hands full with these guys. They must protect against the out and up and other plays that are meant to prey on their aggressiveness. It should be fun to see how Bradley counters this fast-paced passing attack.
MH: A fun matchup should bee Wooten against Clark. Wooten is sure to break into the backfield and make Clark use his legs. If Clark can step into the pocket or break on a run you could see some big plays. If Wooten gets a paw on him, watch for Northwestern to get a spark and pick up some momentum.
Keys to the Game:
ND: These Wildcats are pesky. The Lions will need to maintain focus throughout the game. Just because Clark and company get out to a big lead, it may not necessarily be safe. The PSU defense is far more talented than anything that the Wildcats have faced but don't rule out Kafka. The offense and defense must stay focused to finish out the game. This means executing, attacking and protecting the ball.
MH: I am going to stick with my key from last week – ball protection. PSU had no turnovers and had a major win on the road. If they can stay focused squarely on Northwestern and hold onto the ball they should have the horses to win this race.
ND: The Lions will win this game by controlling the clock and slowing the Wildcat offense down significantly. Kafka and the receivers will make some plays in an attempt to get on the board and that's what will help the Wildcats get into the endzone. There are fireworks scheduled immediately following this game but I think Clark will supply some fireworks during it as well.
Penn State 31 Northwestern 14
MH: I see a similar game plan for the Lions in this one with pressure containment on Kafka for the defense and a balanced approach on offense. The weather could make things interesting, but if the Lions can protect the ball they should grab another solid road win.
Penn State 28, Northwestern 13
Until next time,
Fight On State!