The mighty (awful) Northwestern Wildcats (1-2, 0-0 Big Ten) bring their sorry act to Beaver Stadium to face the Penn State Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0) at high noon on Saturday. Penn State is riding high on the virtue of a brilliant 48-7 win over UMass in which they actually showed some semblance of a balanced offense, while the lesser cats are pumped up over beating primo Missouri Valley Conference (Division I-AA) rival Western Illinois, 24-7, for their only win of the young season, snapping a six-game losing streak.
K. John, our intrepid predictor and commentator will be in attendance. He has already checked in, bitching about the inflated prices in State College during football weekends. He dropped off a prediction before he left Dodge, that being PSU 45, NWU 15.
The Wildcats’ losses this season were to Cal (31-24) and Northern Illinois (23-15). Meanwhile, Penn State temporarily leads the Big Ten, as they are the only school with a conference win.
You know, Northwestern used to play Penn State tough, no matter how crappy they looked on paper. There were some epic battles in the past. However, recently, it hasn’t been close. The last outing was 2012, when a Bill O’Brien team depleted by the infamous sanctions prevailed 39-28. One has to look back to 2005 for a close game, which the Lions won 34-29. The all-time series weighs heavily in PSU’s favor, 13-3. OK, I lied about always playing tough. Looking back, 1997, 2001 and 2005 were the only really close games and Penn State won them all. The two most recent losses were during the [cue cello music in foreboding minor key] Dark Years. Northwestern beat the boys in 2003 and 2004, by scores of 17-7 and 14-7, respectively.
Now that I’ve proven that I can do Internet football history look-ups, let’s move on.
Penn State’s defense is the strength of this team, so let’s get that out of the way first. They lead the NCAA FBS in rushing defense and rank tenth in total defense, sixth in scoring defense. Yeah, the front seven is to be respected, but we don’t really know how much respect to give them yet, having played a single conference game against one of the weaker teams in the conference. I’m not so sure they’ll be tested this week, but they will soon be into the heart of the Big Ten schedule and then we’ll know a lot more. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider them rock solid, at least against the run.
Team passing efficiency defense ranks only 19th in the NCAA, and this stat was inflated by five gift interceptions of Gary “Turn” Nova in the Rutgers game. I’m pronouncing the secondary a very definite “too soon to tell”. The pass rush is sort of “meh”, too, having recorded 12 sacks for 75 yards in four games.
On offense, you know the story. The UMass game was the only game this season with a balanced offensive attack, and it was only because PSU faced a limp dishrag defense. The inexperienced PSU O-line could play with them and make Z/28 (got that right, Mike?) look good. All other games relied on the arm of Christian Hackenberg and a tandem of great receivers, Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton, to seal the deal. Dramatic game saving drives have been necessary to pull Penn State out of the hole on two occasions, and the Hack Attack has proven itself capable of performing under duress.
However, how did they get into those predicaments requiring the comebacks? Turnovers, man. Although the Lions rank in the middle of the NCAA pack with a zero net turnover margin, the aforementioned Gary Nova giftage is responsible. Otherwise, they’d be down at the bottom of the heap again.
But Northwestern — OY! They rank 103rd in rushing yards. While that is two notches above Penn State, it certainly suuuuuuuuucks! Ranking 75th in passing yards, they don’t seem to have a fine selection of offensive weaponry. Defensively, they’re middle of the pack or lower, and just look at their quality of opposition for a clue as to how that might play out.
One thing to watch out for, though, is superstud defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo, who will be gunning for Hack on every passing down. Given that Northwestern allows 136 yards per game in rushing, this might be a good time to continue to develop the Penn State running game and take some pressure off the Hackeroo.
The weather for the game should be beautiful fall football weather, 76 and sunny. This should not affect any aspect of anyone’s game. However, it’s a noon start, which used to spell disaster for Penn State. Fortunately, the game is at home, but it was also at home last week when PSU played UMass with its thumbs up its collective ass in the first quarter.
So, now, let’s get down to brass tacks, already. It is time for the Official Turkey Poop Prediction. At season’s outset, I asked our distinguished panel of predictors to forecast each game, and they were unanimous in their selection of Penn State for this game. Who is this turkey to buck that esteemed consensus? The present gambling line favors the Nittany Lions by 9.5, with an over/under of 47. This suggests a final score in the neighborhood of 28-19. Given that the running game is not “there” yet and the noon start doldrums might crop up, I’m tempted to go with the “under”. But I won’t. I’m going to be optimistic, for a change. Penn State 38, Northwestern 10. Take the over.