Two wins in a row at Beaver Stadium would be candy for the Penn State homeys and would add another career milestone for venerable head coach Joe Paterno, who seeks his 400th career victory. Can your Nittany Lions get the job done?
The “almost ranked” and bowl eligible Northwestern Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) saunter into Beaver Stadium to square off with a larger species of cat, the mighty Penn State Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2), who as you know are coming off a hard fought and emotional victory over Michigan last week. The Wildcats squeaked by Indiana 20-17.
Northwestern’s offense is led by senior quarterback Dan Persa, who is a steady and careful Big Ten quarterback. He dinks and dunks his way down the field, which is pretty much required of him in the absence of a reliable running game. His completion rate is still over 74%, but it has been steadily declining since the ‘cats entered the meat of the Big Ten schedule. Persa has been intercepted only three times all year, while throwing 12 touchdown passes. Whether he’ll be fully capable of playing this game has been in question since he suffered a concussion against Indiana. He participated in about half of Wednesday’s practice.
Persa’s favorite target is junior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert (no relation to movie critic Roger Ebert), who leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game. Senior Sidney Stewart is Persa’s second choice.
The Wildcats’ passing offense is ranked 25th nationally, but they are 68th in rushing.
On the defensive side of the ball, Northwestern has two decent senior linebackers, Quentin Davie and Nate Williams, the latter of whom is from Pittsburgh. Williams is averaging over six tackles per game, and Davie is tied for third in the conference in interceptions. On the whole, the Wildcats’ defense is better than middle-of-the-pack, ranking in the high 30s in rushing and pass efficiency defense.
Coaching is solid, with Pat Fitzgerald in his fifth season at Northwestern. Himself a linebacker and former linebacker coach, the 35 year-old Fitzgerald is a risen young star among NCAA Division I-A head coaches. He is so well regarded that his name is frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Joe Paterno at Penn State. Recent rumors suggest that either he or the rumor mongers have posited that he would leave NWU for the job at PSU, if it were offered. However, with a name like Pat Fitzgerald, don’t be surprised if he eventually winds up at Notre Dame someday and don’t be surprised if Jenn Sterger’s old breast implants show up on eBay someday. (That’s just Turkey poop, so please don’t start any rumors.)
This Turkey supposes that there are two ways to view last Saturday’s victory over Michigan. One is that it represented a turning point that potentially will transform a dull, uninspired season to a spirited one. The other is that it was a temporary aberration, a lucky encounter with a defense that was just plain bad—bad enough to allow an underperforming Penn State offense to outscore Michigan. My thoughts are that it was some of both. (What a cop out, eh?) Alas, I think there was a little of the former and a whole lot of the latter.
The return of the running game was a joy to watch, but will it continue? The Wildcats, ranked 6th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, have allowed an average of 126 ypg, as opposed to the Wolverines, who rank 8th in the conference at 150. Not a huge difference there. Will the offensive line’s maintain its steady progress? Establishing the running game and dominating time of possession will be key in this contest. Matt McGloin brought a fresh look to the offense and a lot of gritty spirit to the huddle; however, Rob Bolden is likely to start this week (according to Cory Giger of the Altoona Mirror). Whichever of the two starts, the much maligned offensive line has done a decent job of protecting its quarterback this season, ranking third in the conference in sacks allowed. For all the heat they’ve taken from me about being inferior on their best day to the mighty McCabe sisters, they certainly deserve a little love from El Pavo Grande for their pass protection.
The biggest worry is the Nittany Lion defense, or lack of same. Against the pass—and Northwestern is a passing team—PSU ranks 72nd in pass efficiency defense and 107th in sacks. If the Wildcats should choose to run the ball, they’ll be up against a rushing defense worse than Michigan’s, allowing 155 yards per game. Injuries to key players and poorer than expected performances by others cast this as a mediocre defense at best. We cannot kid ourselves about that. Is Khari Fortt ever going to get playing time at defensive end? Regardless of the individual tweaks here and there, which come an an unfortunately late juncture in the season, the defensive suckage cannot be expected to be ameliorated this year. There are just too many weaknesses at too many positions. The one bright spot is that Penn State’s Nick Sukay leads the conference in interceptions but it is just our luck that Sukay tore a pec muscle and is out for the year.
Special teams: advantage Penn State. Thank God for small miracles. Collin Wagner leads the conference in field goals. I have maintained that Wagner is Penn States offensive MVP this season, and I see no reason to abandon that position at this point. He has become a reliable scorer, a potent weapon for a team that has struggled to score touchdowns. Anthony Fera is a fairly reliable punter and can kick the ball deep on kickoffs. And we’re all waiting for Chaz Powell to break another long kickoff return for a touchdown, damnit!
I suppose that one big factor in this home game will be the quest for Paterno’s 400th. Will the players be motivated to play beyond themselves for the glory of dear old State and for Joe? The 3:30 pm start should give them plenty of time to wake up and ready themselves. It remains to be seen whether they will come out with guns a-blazin’ in the first quarter. We know that this bunch doesn’t do well coming from behind.
The weather should be a factor. Variable cloudiness with a high of 42 and possible rain or snow showers is the forecast from State College’s own AccuWeather.com. This, of course, favors the running game. Theoretically, if you forget the first six games of the season, it should in turn favor Penn State. Can you forget the first six games of the season just because the last two were decent? No, you cannot. I think if anything, the weather favors the Wildcats because the two sucky running games will cancel themselves out and it will be up to the passing game. Persa’s plodding style tips the scales toward Northwestern, and if Bolden starts, it exacerbates that situation. On the other hand, one never knows how two concussion boys will handle their first outing after getting their bells rung. Maybe the cool weather will clear their heads.
Well, Turkey aficionados, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for, the Official Turkey Poop Inflailable [sic] Forecast, the fearless, flagellative, fablungeta, Phillistine, faggoty forecast (I can’t think of any more alliterative f-words, can you?), forsooth! But first, have you heard that the Nittany Lion mascot, who was ticketed for public intoxication in August, has finally been fired? Yep, happened during the week. We at the Turkey wish him well in his forthcoming endeavors and hope that he can curtail that nasty drinking habit. It can ruin your life, lad! But I digress. Back to the game, the gambling line favors the Nittany Lions by six points, with an over/under of 48.5. At the beginning of the season, this Turkey’s predictions for the season called for PSU to lose to either Michigan or Northwestern, and I have no reason to change my mind at this point. The Lions beat Michigan because of their crappy defense; nevertheless, they allowed 31 points while doing so. While NWU doesn’t have a Denard Robinson, they don’t make many mistakes (+.63 turnover margin, as opposed to State’s -.13). Is this beginning to sound a bit ominous to you? It should. The gamblers seem to be suggesting a Penn State win with a score of like 27-21, but the Turkey doesn’t see it that way. Joe will have to wait for November 20, the Turkey’s birthday, to get his 400th win. On a chilly day, take Northwestern plus six, and take the under. We’re looking at NWU 23, PSU 16.