Nooner with Northwestern
The mighty #4 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) travel to Ryan Field to take on the Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 B1G). Noon starts on the road, particularly those in front of an apathetic, sparse Ryan Field crowd, are problematical for Penn State. Why should this one be any different? Hell, at the beginning of the year, I predicted that this would be the Waterloo for Napoleon Franklin and his hubris-hampered army, the veritable denouement of PSU’s 2017 B1G title hopes.
That was then and this is now. In the words of the noncommittal parent and our national parental unit, President Donald J. Trump, “we’ll see.”
The Wildcats of Northwestern, aka the Wildpussies, are coming off an interesting game with the #10 Wisconsin Badgers in which they took an unexpected 10-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, then fell behind and mounted a comeback, but wound up losing 33-24. Still, the Badgers had their hands full of pussyfur. (I don’t know where this pussy thing is going yet. Don’t stop me — I’m on a roll!) On the blue and white side, you are well aware that the Nee-tah-nee Lions prevailed over a mistake-laden Indiana last week, 45-14.
While I did indeed pick Northwestern to win this one in my pre-season rant, I pulled that one straight out of my ass. We did not know then what we know now. Accordingly, I’ve kind of changed my mind based on what we know now. What do we know now? Sometimes you know things you don’t know you know, you know? But I digress. In general, as we head for the halfway point of the season, here’s what we know:
- Where would they be without Heisman contender Saquon Barkley? Through five games, he has accounted for 43.7% of Penn State’s total offense, and 20.3% of Penn State’s total points.
- Yeah, they’re a quick-strike offense with some excellent pass receivers and a quarterback who can sometimes hit them. This is a positive at times — when things go well.
- The PSU defense has put the Lions on top of the conference in turnover margin. And, as we all know, turnovers’ll killya. (But on the other hand — and there’s always an “other hand” — who have they played?)
- Improvements in punt and kickoff coverage have been graphically evident for Penn State. This has been a very pleasant surprise.
- They’re putting up a lot of points, but you can’t rely on this for the meat of the Big Ten schedule. Tight defense, coupled with ability to sustain drives and convert third downs will be necessary starting this week. But for now, a positive.
- The defensive front seven have improved as the season has progressed, but have they improved enough to contain the “Big Boys” of the conference? Jason Cabinda came alive with 14 tackles in the Indiana game.
- Opponents have been loading up the box to stop Barkley runs, and the PSU response hasn’t been very effective. What might succeed against Iowa or Indiana won’t succeed against Michigan or Ohio State.
- Third-down conversions continue to suck. If the short game doesn’t come together, red zone production will suck, too.
- The offensive line has not improved to the extent we thought it would. They’re still getting pushed around, still not making running room for Barkley, and they’re now letting McSorley get sacked — five times in the Indiana game.
- And what is with the field goal unit? The excuse of a new long snapper and holder is getting a little old, isn’t it? Fix it or go down in flames, perhaps as early as this week.
- The PSU defense has given up some big plays that have cost the Lions points.
- Trace McSorley shows flashes of brilliance, hitting long passes with pinpoint accuracy, but then alternates with crappy, inaccurate throws. Shades of C-Hack.
- As James Franklin sees it, “There are areas we have to get better, for where we want to go and what we want to do, we have to get better.” Explain that to me and then we’ll both know.
- Injuries. Mike Gesicki. What’s the deal?
- Coached by Pat Fitzgerald, who was himself a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and the first two-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award. He’s always been one of Penn State fans’ favorite opposing coaches. Fitzgerald’s 77 wins at Northwestern as head coach — making him the winningest coach in NWU history — has netted him an unprecedented 10-year contract extension. Remember that I mentioned last week that Iowa’s head coach was the longest tenured in the Big Ten? Well, Fitz is second longest, and will probably be coaching at Northwestern long after Kirk Ferentz retires at Iowa. Fitzgerald is a Northwestern man through and through and they love him in Evanston.
- Northwestern has a history of giving Penn State trouble when least expected, which is redoubled in spades for 11 AM CT starts at Ryan Field.
- Clayton Thorson is a competent, but not spectacular QB, second behind McSorley in the Big Ten.
- Northwestern gave #10 Wisconsin a lot of trouble, but we have no idea how good or bad the Badgers are.
- The Wildpussies are scoring over 30 points per game, which they need to do because their defense blows.
- They don’t make many mistakes. It remains to be seen whether PSU can continue to force fumbles. If they can better their +9 coming out of this one, it is a well-deserved point of pride for the Penn State defense.
- Northwestern defense is uncharacteristically bad, giving up 25 points per game.
- Did I say that the defense suuuuuuuuuuuuucks?
- The running game is virtually nonexistent for Northwestern. They rank 12th in the Big Ten.
- Fitzgerald cites the need for better play at right tackle as one of the keys to fixing the running game.
- Also, top running back Justin Jackson might be dealing with a quadriceps injury suffered in the big victory over Bowling Green. If you read more, injuries had been affecting games constantly.
- How in the hell did they get clobbered by Duke, ferchrissakes?!?!
I hadn’t intended to make that section as long and detailed as it is. Now, I’m kind of proud of myself for having written it. (Boy, am I a dork!)
Stats Are for Losers
While as a team, Northwestern ranks in the middle or lower tercile in most Big Ten categories, they do manage to crack the top five in Passing Offense, Punting, First Downs, and Red Zone Offense. (Of course, Penn State shows up at the top of the Red Zone Defense category, so something’s gotta give.)
Individually, the standout is junior quarterback Clayton Thorson, a 6-4, 225 lb pro-sized pocket passer is second in passing only to our own Trace McSorley in the Big Ten, averaging over 265 yards passing per game, but who has thrown five interceptions thus far this year and has been sacked 15 times. (He’s not one to beat you with his feet.) Northwestern’s offense relies primarily on the pass. Thorson has thrown seven into da house this year.
Thorson’s favorite paydirt target is senior tight end Garrett Dickerson, who is averaging 11.9 yards per catch. He has 214 yard and a touchdown through four games. However, he has a group of young wide receivers among whom Thorson can distribute balls willy-nilly. In the Wisconsin game, Thorson threw the ball of yarn to 10 different ‘cats.
The rushing attack is something else, like nonexistent, I must say, as Northwestern was able to manage only 25 net yards on 34 carries (of which 13 were by Thorson) against Wisconsin. Sacks of Thorson accounted for -41 yards. Vaunted senior RB Justin Jackson just hasn’t been up to snuff this season, with just 273 yards rushing and four touchdowns on the season. He had 18 against Duke and then presumably suffered an injury in his next outing against Bowling Green, which could explain his anemic output against the Badgers. He is listed as probable this week.
While somewhat weaker than the defenses we’re accustomed to seeing Northwestern put on the field, there are some standouts worth mentioning. Senior safety Godwin Igwebuike is the defensive superstar. In the losing effort against Duke, he had 14 total tackles (6 solo), broke up a pass, and forced a fumble. Against Wisconsin, Igwebuike had seven tackles (3 solo) and one interception.
We can always count on head coach Pat Fitzgerald to field a good collection of players at his former position. Senior linebacker Brett Walsh had 11 tackles (6 solo) against Wisconsin, while up-and-coming freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher from Katy, TX had 18 (9 solo) tackles against Duke and 8 (4 solo) tackles plus forcing a fumble against the Badgers.
One thing is for certain: this defense will throw everything it can at Saquon Barkley, who Fitzgerald considers “maybe the best player I’ve ever seen“. Fitz has seen and played against a lot of great ones, too. He’s not prone to hyperbole — this is a sincere compliment from a guy who knows great players when he sees them.
This ‘n’ That
I always wanted to write a subhead called “This ‘n’ That”. Back in da Burgh, ‘at would be pernahnnced “issin-AT”. “Pernahnced” is how you say “pronounced” in Pittsburgh, where there are no pronouns, but plenty of pronahns, like the infamous “yinz” (plural of “you”). Yinzers specially hang aht dahntahn or in da stript districk at Permanny’s ‘n’ ‘at. So what do I write under the heading This ‘n’ That? Nothing. Just bullshit. But it keeps me busy while I’m trying to get my crystal ball warmed up t’perdick da game fer yinz jaggoffs aht ‘ere.
Gett’n rahn ‘at tahm a yirr ‘n’ ‘at, y’know. Them AccuWeather folks are predictin a mostly clahddy day with a little a dat rain in Evanston, with a high of 75° — but most importantly, wins from da East at 18 mph, with gusts to 28 mph. If ‘at forecast huwds, it ain’t wookin too good fer the passin game, and it’s wookin even worse fer the kickin game, which don’t need no more problems, if ya ast me. Yinz better keep a eye onna weather ‘n’ ‘at.
What, you don’t speak Pittsburghese? Sheeeeit! Here’s the translation: a little rain and a lot of wind will play havoc with the passing and kicking game. Remember what Jackstand tells us: a wet ball is slippery and hard to catch. (That explained away DaeSean Hamilton’s three drops in Week One).
Da Bottom Line
(<drum roll…> You sure had to wade through a lot of shit to get to this point, where even more awful offal is forthcoming.)
Avast, me hearties! This is the part you’ve been wading for (sic) — the Official Turkey Poop prediction. This is where I hem and haw for a while, and hopefully turn off the Pittsburghese long enough, as I run many scenarios through my bird brain, which has been given a bunch of easy ones to pick thus far. Cometh now crunch time, and that ain’t just turkey feed.
At the moment, Penn State is favored over Northwestern by an even two touchdowns, and the wiseguys are looking at 54½ for the over/under. So break-even for the books (who get the vig, whatever the outcome, anyway) would be a score of about 34-20 in favor of Penn State. So the gamblers are paying a little more respect to the Wildcats’ defense than they did the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers.
This one scares me. I’ve been cowed by past failures at nooners on the road, and by Pat Fitzgerald playing Penn State tough in general. Penn State leads the all-time series 13-5, but Northwestern has won the last two, including complete destruction of the Lions in 2014, at home in Beaver Stadium, and a close (23-21) game in 2015 at Ryan Field.
Get to the Doggone Point, Already, Ya Turkey!
The Nittany Lions better damn well improve their third-down percentage and they better be able to kick field goals if they are going to win this one. The Wildcats don’t make many mistakes, so we can’t be counting on turnovers to save our fanbutts. And if the Lions don’t come out ready to play football, it could get nasty fast. PSU might need a field goal to win this one in the end, so get ready, Mr. Davis, to cope with the pressure of 24,000 purple clad pinot noir sippers yelling for you to miss. Penn State 26, Northwestern 25. Take the under.
Hoping that the Nittany Lions do not choke on a furball, I’ll be back with a retrospective on the big showdown at Evanston a day or so after the game, just fer yinz jaggoffs aht ‘ere.