Penn State at Northwestern Preview and Prediction
So, the Turkey will pull any Cheap Trick to get more search engine hits, consequently invoking the name of a pop band from Los Angeles in the title plus including the name of a famous Rockford, Illinois (that’s in Winnebago County) rock band in this sentence should do the trick today, cheaply. Didn’t hurt to mention the name of a famous recreational vehicle there, either, did it? Don’t stop me, I’m on a roll!
The Northwestern Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) host the mighty Penn State Nittany Lions (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) at Ryan Field on Saturday in what should be an interesting match-up. The Wildcats are coming off a tough win over sad-sack Nebraska two weeks ago followed by a bye week, while the Lions kicked some serious Fightless Illini ass, 39-0.
Whither the Polls for These Two?
First, let me ask a question about meaningless rankings. Why should Michigan (6-2), Ole Miss (7-2), UCLA (6-2), Mississippi State (6-2), and Texas A&M (6-2) be ranked in the top 25 while these two, two-loss teams are left out? I notice in the AP Poll that Northwestern got 21 votes and PSU got 5, while in the Coaches Poll Northwestern got 15 and PSU, 5. Ain’t no respect being shown there.
I suppose Northwestern, being a relatively infrequent visitor to the Top 25, is an afterthought of the voters. Penn State is sort of in the same position, not having been up there recently, since the (cue cello plus contrabassoon) dreaded sanctions.
It’ll probably require two more wins for the Nittany Lions to get any attention from the big polls, although some minor good news is that CBSSports.com has listed Penn State #23 in their rankings this week. Nevertheless, unless you are a numbers ho, any ranking by any poll is semi-arbitrary and meaningless. I like to blow wind, so I mentioned it anyway.
The one that actually counts is the College Football Playoff Rankings, through which, eventually, the final four teams for the playoffs are selected. While Penn State and Northwestern are presently far removed from competing at that level, it is interesting that in their first week of results, the panel of geniuses included Northwestern at #21, while Penn State was nowhere to be found.
But I digress. Here is a chance for yet another move forward to restored relevancy for Penn State, albeit a small and somewhat symbolic one. If Penn State defeats Northwestern, the Condoleeza-Alvarez-Osborn Crew will have no choice but to rank the Nittany Lions in the Top 25 this week. And that ain’t chopped liver!
Gratuitous Lame Sportscaster Rant
In the present lame, inane, ubiquitous sports commentator vernacular, “If I’m Penn State, I’m not happy with that snub, and I view this game as a chance to gain respect.” Yeah, man. If I’m Penn State? Can anyone listen to that stupidity without ROFLing, LOLing, and LMAOing? Back in the day, after Dizzy Dean’s great pitching career with the Cards, Cubs, and Browns ended, he became a sports broadcaster. Dean was lambasted publicly by schoolteachers and moms for using crappy grammar — he said “ain’t” a lot, as well as crap like “Al Zarilla slud into third” — but the latter indicates that he at least knew the difference between present and past tenses and Ol’ Diz sure as hell wouldn’t have ever thought he ever could be the St. Louis Cardinals.
A lot of folks who ain’t sayin’ ‘ain’t,’ ain’t eatin’. So, Teach, you learn ’em English, and I’ll learn ’em baseball.” —Dizzy Dean
Seriously, though, don’t you get sick and tired of hearing this same tenseless, voiceless, moodless, inane, brainless “If I’m the Packers, I’m…” crap at every turn of the dial?
Oh, boy, an 11 a.m. CT start!
ESPN put this game on the six-day death watch, culminating in last Sunday’s decision to kick off at noon ET. The Nittany Lions have a crappy reputation with respect to playing noon games on the road, dating way the hell back into the St. Joe days. Interesting note, though. On Bob Flounders’ chat thingie on PennLive.com, someone posted that they had done the research regarding road games with early kickoff times, revealing that PSU was 5-3 in 11 a.m. CT road games since 2013. I’m too lazy to verify that, but what I think it means to me is that we remember the losses much longer than we remember the wins. Furthermore, the Penn State road nooner effect dates back to a helluva lot before 2013. We were bitching about it in the early millennial days, better known as (cue cello) The Dark Years.
Northwestern: How they got here.
People took notice of this Northwestern team when it beat Stanford 16-6 at the season’s start. They rolled over cupcake Eastern Illinois, then traveled to Duke and won there. After a win against Ball State, the Wildcats soundly trounced Minnesota 27-0, earning a 5-0 record and a #13 ranking going into the Michigan game.
What happened on Homecoming Day at the Big House bordered on criminal, as the Wolverines made kitty litter out of the Wildcats, 38-0. At that point, Northwestern had been giving up only seven points a game; against Michigan, they gave up 21 in the first quarter. They never got on track offensively, trying out three different quarterbacks with no success, while repeatedly making costly errors.
The tough times didn’t end there for the ‘Cats. They next hosted Iowa, to whom they lost 40-10. The defense gave up 492 yards to the Hawkeyes, while the offense once again shot itself in the foot, fumbling away the ball three times. Between these two losses, the team’s self-confidence had been severely shaken; they seemed transformed and pussified.
Northwestern next limped into Lincoln with a 6-2 record, struggling with the negativism that two thorough ass-kickings in a row can wreak on a team. At a team meeting on game Monday, the Wildcats vowed not to let that kind of thing happen again. Thing is, it almost did, although it would have been a lot closer. Nebraska was leading 22-20 going into the fourth quarter and had dominated time of possession. The NU defense managed to do its job fairly well, allowing only 82 rushing yards to Big Red and intercepting one Tommy Armstrong pass for a pick six, while the balanced offense made few mistakes, in the end prevailing 30-28.
Northwestern: Who they is.
Since taking over as head coach at Northwestern in 2006, Pat Fitzgerald has compiled a 66-55 overall record, including 32-44 in the Big Ten. Fitz has taken the Wildcats to five bowl games, winning only one, the 2013 Gator Bowl, which closed out his best season, ending up with a 10-3 record and a 17th national ranking. In spite of what looks like a mediocre overall record, Fitzgerald is the all-time winningest coach in Northwestern University football history, both overall and in-conference.
Defense not too shabby
Northwestern ranks 17th in total defense among NCAA FBS teams. While the rushing defense is 43rd (that’s just below PSU’s 42nd), the Wildcats’ passing efficiency defense ranks third nationally through eight games, right between Michigan and Ohio State. They have given up only three touchdown passes all year, while intercepting seven.
The experienced defensive line is anchored by 6-6, 280 lb senior defensive end Dean Lowry, who is credited with 10.5 tackles for loss, along with junior Ifeadi Odenigbo and senior Deonte Gibson. Lowry had 10 tackles against Nebraska, including six TFLs, the most in a single college football game this season. He was named Big Ten Defensive player of the week. This defensive front will be a handful for the Five Traffic Cones. Lowry in particular will need to be double-teamed, because Paris Palmer won’t be able to deal with him.
You can always count on Fitzgerald to have lots of talent at linebacker. At MLB, sophomore Anthony Walker is a stud with 67 tackles and 10.5 TFLs.
The defensive secondary has a collection of excellent backs who have an eye for the ball. Junior Matthew Harris has broken up seven passes and snagged three interceptions, one of them a 47-yard pick-six. Senior cornerback Nick VanHoose returned his first interception of the season 72 yards against Nebraska for his first career touchdown. Sophomore free safety Godwin Igwebuike is second in tackles with 46 total and 2.5 TFLs.
The best thing for Penn State to do will be to run on this defense. Yeah, right. That’s what everybody is thinking. I hope John Donovan thinks outside the box.
On offense, the Wildcats suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck in the passing game. Fitz is concerned that without a balanced attack, opponents can load up on the line. Passing aside, redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson behind an experienced offensive line presents some problems that can trouble the Penn State defense in areas we know all too well. He is mobile and tends to run six to ten times a game. Most recently, Thorson ran for 126 yards against Nebraska, with a long run of 68 yards for a touchdown. He is the second-leading rusher on the team. Justin Jackson spearheads the rushing attack with 731 yards and one touchdown. He is averaging 91.4 yards per game. Good numbers, but Fitzgerald believes that the blocking at the point of attack could be better, and he has his staff working on improvements.
Funny thing — Fitzgerald at his press conference inferred that Northwestern is struggling with third down conversions and they need to find ways to sustain drives. Oh yeah? Northwestern ranks 30th nationally in third down conversions at 44.1%. Compare that to Penn State’s 125th ranking at 28.9%. Fitz, what the hell are you complaining about???!?!
Special teams — suckage equality
On special teams, both Northwestern and Penn State suuuuuuuuuuuck. Punter Hunter Niswander averages 38.1 yards vs Dan Pasquariello’s 39.9. A brighter spot for the Wildcats is kickoff returns, where Solomon Vault is averaging 26.3 yards per return, including one returned for a touchdown. Northwestern leads the country in punt return defense, allowing an average of -1.5 yards (but only 6 punts have been returned against them all year, suggesting that Niswander probably shanks most of them irretrievably out-of-bounds LOL).
The Turkey’s Five Keys to a PSU Victory
- Handle Dean Lowry and Anthony Walker at the LOS. They aren’t the TFL Studs for nothin’, and while the Traffic Cones have exhibited some improvement as of last week, especially with both Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent in the lineup together, they’re facing stiff — and fresh — opposition this week. Don’t allow another Sack-a-Hack debacle and give our freshman ace Saquon Barkley some running room!
- Maintain discipline on defense. The Penn State rushing defense, which we’re conditioned to think is invincible, is allowing 143.9 yards per game and 12 touchdowns, ranking sixth in the Big Ten. One big reason for the underperformance of this group, injuries and poor tackling aside, has been their penchant for being beaten by mobile, fleet-footed quarterbacks. Well, don’t look now, but Clayton Thorson has been known to bolt from the pocket nine or ten times in any given game. Don’t let him get the edge! And one more thing: make tackles!
- Convert third downs. Yeah, I keep harping on it, but if the defense doesn’t get a rest via long drives by the offense, chasing a slippery quarterback and a talented RB all over the field will have them sucking wind by the third quarter with the game on the line. Penn State absolutely SUCKS at converting third downs. They’re not last in the conference, but also very close to last in all of top-division NCAA football. Only Miami of Ohio and Kent State are worse in the entire FBS.
- Wake up. Yeah, after last week, it is easy to think that — well, sheeeit! — we’re home free. Who can stop the juggernaut? Who, I ask you? You know I’m jerking your chain. Eleven a.m. kickoffs on the road are rough any way you look at them. Northwestern will be well rested. Those guys better be awake.
- Don’t make this a slopfest. Penalties’ll killya. Turnovers’ll killya. In what figures to be a close game (on paper, at least), mistakes of any kind will killya.
Happy Halloween from the Wildcats
Instead of featuring a distinguished alumnus or alumna this week, we’ll just let the entire team perform for you in costume.
— Pat Fitzgerald (@coachfitz51) October 30, 2015
Who said it can’t be fun? Wonder how hard Donatello really hits?
Good football weather at Ryan Field! Sunny, with a high of 53° and a quartering 10 mph breeze. Advantage: everyone!
Official Turkey Poop Prediction
So here we are, folks, at the tenth game of the season with two to go after this one. Sure has all passed in a flash, ain’t? Some of you probably think this Nittany Lions team is over the hump, having destroyed mighty Illinois last week. I don’t care if you think that way, just as long as they don’t. This is not the time to be complacent. The Illinois game might well have been their last win of the year if they don’t put out the same effort in each of the remaining three.
I’ve seen it written that this Penn State team has solved its problems, a conclusion anyone should be able to draw from the Illinois rout. Sorry, but we need to see some consistent performances like last week before we can conclude that. Too many of us are well aware of the roller coaster ride we’ve taken with this group and prior instances. I’m from Missouri.
(No, not literally. Shadddddup!)
Northwestern is the lowest ranked opponent of the remaining three. Lose this one and my 7-5 season prediction will likely come true. You don’t want that to happen, do you?
The gambling line on this game is presently 2½ points in favor of Northwestern, with an over/under of 40½, suggesting a 21-19 Wildcat victory.
Man, would I love to see another blowout by Penn State! After all, Michigan, with damn little offense blew these ‘Cats off the face of the map, and Iowa gave them a 30-point ass whippin’, scoring 40 on them. So, why can’t the Nittany Lions sustain what they started last week and put at least 40 on these upstarts? Will they? If the stars align, yeah, maybe. Was last week a fluke where everything went right and the stars actually did align? Yeah, maybe. Inconsistency aside, Northwestern 24, Penn State 20. Take the over.
I’ll be back sometime after the game with the Official Turkey Wrap.