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Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Northwestern Wildcats: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications

The Northwestern Wildcats hope to get back on track and return to their Big Ten title dreams as they take on the juggernaut that is the Penn State Nittany Lions.

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Paddy Fisher, Northwestern Wildcats, Bowling Green Falcons
When: Sat. Oct. 7, 2017; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
TV: ABC
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Prediction: Penn State 31, Northwestern 13

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Buckeyes Football

2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know

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What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected. 

It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line. 

All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams. 

5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten

That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game. 

Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame. 

Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play. 

On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.

4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance

It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances. 

Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game. 

OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013. 

A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy. 

3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game

The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting. 

Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having. 

It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season. 

As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year. 

Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…

2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season

One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State. 

Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year. 

Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13. 

Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis? 

1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game

A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time. 

There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016. 

In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team. 

How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day. 

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Widcats Basketball

WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena

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After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season. 

On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener. 

Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside. 

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Football

Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win

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Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon. 

The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.

It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program. 

It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football. 

The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.

Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts. 

Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day. 

But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers. 

The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers. 

Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game. 

But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.

But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play. 

Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time. 

Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own. 

It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt. 

This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. 

Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six. 

Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern. 

The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh. 

For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players. 

The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility. 

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Football

Thorson dials up best against MSU once again

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As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing. 

That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans. 

Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games. 

History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes. 

It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite. 

At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense. 

Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game. 

Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for. 

Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too. 

But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game. 

Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter. 

It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game. 

He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19. 

The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play. 

Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well. 

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