When the Northwestern Wildcats take on Penn State at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, they’ll be chasing their best start in 50 years.
It’s up to the Nittany Lions to prevent the Wildcats from a 6-0 on start on Penn State’s homecoming weekend in Happy Valley.
One thing is for certain: Penn State is ready for the challenge.
“These game are not easy, this conference is tough, so anytime you can get off on the right foot in the Big Ten, that’s a big deal,” said Penn State coach Bill O’Brien this week.
After a rough beginning and an 0-2 start to the O’Brien era, the Nittany Lions (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) have reeled off three-straight impressive wins over Navy, Temple and last week against Illinois in their Big Ten opener. While the competetion the Lions have faced has jumped up each of the last three weeks, the No. 24 Wildcats (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) roll in riding a five-game winning streak and a pair hot quarterback in sophomore Trevor Siemian and junior Kain Colter. The Wildcats are also averaging an impressive 446 yards of total offense per game, along with an astounding 255 on the ground through five games. It should be a great test for a Penn State defense that is allowing just 13.6 points per game, good for 14th in the country.
While the matchup to watch will be Northwestern’s high-flying offense against Penn State stingy
defense, the Nittany Lions’ offense has quietly become one of the nation’s most efficient units in the past three weeks. Led by quarterback Matt McGloin, the Lions have put up 34 points in two of the past three weeks while the senior has accounted for 10 touchdowns (six passing, four rushing) in the three-game winning streak. Very quietly, McGloin has already accounted for as many touchdowns (14) through five games this season as his did in all of 2011. His progression can be attributed to his work with O’Brien and the coaching staff as he’s become one of the better signal callers in the Big Ten.
Joining McGloin in Penn State’s offensive attack is emerging tailback Zach Zwinak, who rushed for 100 yards and a couple touchdowns in last weeks win at Illinois. The sophomore, who has filled in for injured starter Bill Belton so far this season, has been a surprising bright spot that has emerged to give the Lions much-needed depth in the backfield. The Wildcats will also have to account for Belton as well, who returned last week to rush for 65 yards in his first action since the opener. But the biggest playmaker on the Nittany Lion offense is at wide receiver, where Allen Robinson has been lights out. The sophomore has 32 catches for 438 yards and has caught five touchdown passes from McGloin. His speed and big-play ability help the Lions stretch the field and open up both the running game and the underneath routes for tight ends Matt Lehman and Kyle Carter.
The drum beats on for Lions linebacker Michael Mauti, who was named the nation’s defensive player of the week last week following a two interception performance at Illinois. The senior leads the team in tackles with 48, including 2.5 for loss and a sack. Mauti, and fellow linebackers Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson will be under tremendous pressure this week against Northwestern’s spread offense. All three will have to play in space and matchup with smaller receivers throughout the day.
“When you’re a 230-pound linebacker, it’s tough to cover someone in space, but you have to know where your help is and kind of get the right kind of leverage on the receiver,” Carson said this week.
They’ll also have to contend with the Wildcats’ dual quarterback system with Kain Colter, who is second on the team in rushing with 371 yards and six touchdowns and Siemian, who is completing close to 70 percent of his passes.Also on the agenda is stopping tailback Venric Mark, who leads the team in rushing with 538 yards and five touchdowns. The Wildcats average over five yards per carry as a team. One thing is clear, it’s a full plate for the Nittany Lion defense this week.
Matchup to watch:
Penn State’s linebackers vs. Northwestern’s rushing attack. You don’t average 255 yards a game by accident. The Wildcats run the ball well, and often. Penn State will have to identify personnel packages and get the right match ups to stop Colter, Mark and Co. on the Wildcat offense. If there’s a group to do it, it’s the bunch led by Michael Mauti. Should be a great matchup all day long.
Players to watch:
Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern. Penn State held Colter in check in last year, holding the speedster to 51 yards and a touchdown in his limited playing time during a 34-24 loss. But a year later, Colter is used differently and is more dangerous. The Lions have struggled somewhat against dual-threat quarterbacks in the past (notably Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton), but defended Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase effectively last week. While he isn’t easy to stop entirely, if the Lions can contain Colter – and largely the Wildcat running attack in general – they should be in position to win the game.
Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State. Like a broken record, Michael Mauti makes this list every week. Mauti has been the best linebacker in the country the first five weeks, but we’ll go with his running mate Gerald Hodges this week. The senior had a career-high 14 tackles and an interception last season against the Wildcats and is poised for a big game this week.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State. Northwestern does a great job against the run (90 yards against per game), and Penn State hasn’t run it super great so far (four yards per carry), so this could end up being a shootout. In a shootout, the Lions have the best receiver of the bunch in Robinson, who is a big play waiting to happen. We think he breaks one, maybe more on Saturday.
Prediction: No. 24 Northwestern 28 Penn State 35