Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
All-Time Series: Penn State leads 13-5
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 23-20 (Nov. 7, 2015)
Line: Penn State (-13.5)
The Northwestern Wildcats have one more game to measure themselves. One more chance to see if they are truly up to snuff in the Big Ten and the Big Ten West. Their first opportunity went by the wayside to score that big victory. And in a somewhat depressing way — even with a late comeback.
The second chance for Northwestern to make its mark and stake its claim to the Big Ten throne comes Saturday against the very formidable Penn State.
But the Wildcats have their own big questions to answer. Their performance against the Badgers only further revealed holes and gaps the non-conference season hinted at. The postgame for Pat Fitzgerald focused more on the team’s struggles along the offensive line and what the team did to give up their halftime lead.
Northwestern played at the level they are capable of for a half, hanging with Wisconsin on the road. But the Wildcats could not last the fight. Not with an offense that could not crack a solid and aggressive defense mixing up its blitzing schemes.
In comes Penn State, a souped-up version of Wisconsin at its best and just as good at its worst. A team with a dynamic running back that seems well on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy at this early point of the season. A quarterback who can distribute the ball and make plays when the run game is working. And a defense that gets after the quarterback, into the backfield and creates turnovers.
Penn State has earned its place as the top team in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are building off their Big Ten championship last year. They have quickly become a juggernaut for the Big Ten.
Certainly, for a team that has some clear deficiencies in Northwestern, that is a major concern for the team’s homecoming game.
The Wildcats will have to shore up their offensive line and find a way to get their run game going to have a chance in this one. Three and outs are not an option to ensure their defense is rested against a powerful foe in Penn State.
Northwestern can be tricky. If they do these things, they always have a chance. But the overwhelming evidence is Penn State is the far superior team. If they execute, the Nittany Lions should have every advantage.
1 Burning Question: Who can stop Saquon Barkley?
This is always the first big question for any team playing Penn State. How do you stop Saquon Barkley?
Barkley has rushed for 574 yards on 86 carries in the first five games. He is averaging 114.8 yards per game. But his season has been more than that. It is the impact he has and the attention he takes up.
It is Barkley jumping over defenders and ripping off big gains. Or Barkley returning kickoffs or touchdowns. He frees up everything for Penn State’s offense. And opens things up for Trace McSorley to spread the ball around.
The Wildcats will have their work cut out for them. But they have the ability to slow him down if they can get consistent pressure.
Wisconsin super freshman running back Jonathan Taylor ran for only 80 yards on 19 carries. The Badgers had a steady diet of Taylor. But they used him to set up the play action, where the Badgers. That is where Wisconsin killed Northwestern.
The Wildcats have capable run stoppers in Tyler Lancaster and the developing Samdup Miller and Paddy Fisher. If they play at a high level, that could help Godwin Igwebuike stay in the secondary to defend the pass. But priority one for NOrthwestern
But priority one for Northwestern is focused on the backfield and stopping the run with Saquon Barkley.
2 Key Stats
10: Northwestern has forced 10 fumbles this season in four games, but the team has only recovered four. That shows how opportunistic Northwestern’s defense has been — and the opportunities the team has let slip away. The Wildcats will need to catch every break they can to defeat the Nittany Lions. Penn State has only five fumbles so far this year. Northwestern needs to find a way to create turnovers to stay in this game and get Penn State’s offense off schedule.
44: Penn State is a hard-hitting team and has 44 tackles for a loss already this year. That is a big number and something that should concern the Wildcats. Northwestern has struggled along the offensive line all year. The Wildcats have given up 29 tackles for a loss through four games. They are going to have to be aware of penetration from this aggressive Penn State defense. After Northwestern gave up eight sacks last week, Penn State should be looking to win the line once again.
3 Key Players
Jeremy Larkin, Northwestern Running Back: This matchup should have been a matchup between last year’s top two running backs in the Big Ten. Justin Jackson and Saquon Barkley should still have a great battle. But an injury to Jackson has slowed him down this year and has led to the emergence of freshman Jeremy Larkin. Larkin has 102 yards on 23 carries so far this season. He clearly can play and grow into a larger role. Northwestern needs to keep a consistent ground game and if Jackson is still slowed, Larkin will have to step up.
Marcus Allen, Penn State Safety: Penn State is going to be able to dictate some things defensively for sure throughout this game. And Allen is going to be a force for Penn State in both the pass and run game. Allen has an interception to his name, 29 tackles (second on the team) and 4.0 tackles for a loss with a sack to boot. Allen has been all over the field for the Nittany Lions. If Penn State turns Northwestern into a one-dimensional team, look for him to spearhead the Penn State defensive attack.
Saquon Barkley, Penn State Running Back: Who else? Sure, Chase McSorley will make a big impact in this game as a passer. But this game will be won or lost along the lines. And the running game taht gets going best is going to win this game. It is very psosible Saquon Barkley overwhelms this Northwestern defense. And that will get Penn State going. All eyes are on Barkley.