November 4, 2010

Preview: Northwestern at Penn State

So what's this I hear about Joe Paterno? Oh, he can get his 400th win this weekend at home against Northwestern? Huh. Hadn't noticed.

Joe Paterno
399 and counting...
Northwestern may be catching Penn State at the exact right moment to pull an upset in Happy Valley. But it's not anywhere near certain that will happen. It's also unclear whether Penn State will be able to avoid the traditional "trap" or "letdown" game this week. Why both? Well, Penn State is coming off a very emotional night game win over Michigan. There's your letdown. Then, next week Penn State faces a big game at Ohio State. There's your looking-ahead trap game for this week hosting Northwestern.

Penn State can't afford to think for one second that this game isn't every bit as important (maybe more now than it was before the Michigan win) as last week, or next week, or all four weeks left in the season.

Let's get to it...

The Northwestern Defense

...has been surprisingly, good. Bringing in veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz was probably the best move this program has made since pegging Pat Fitzgerald as head coach. In 2007, this defense was giving up 31 points per game. In the three seasons since then, Hankwitz's unit has averaged around 21 points per game. This year through eight games, Northwestern's scoring defense is 34th nationally (20.25 ppg), while the total defense is respectable at 66th (371 ypg). Helping those numbers--notice the big difference in scoring and total defense rankings--is that Northwestern is tied for 22nd nationally with 11 interceptions, to go with two fumble recoveries. Northwestern doesn't do anything real fancy with their defense. It's just a much better unit fundamentally than it had been in the past.

PSU Pass Offense vs. Northwestern

Rob Bolden warmups [2]
Everything points to Rob Bolden
starting this week. (Photo: Mike/LBU)
I think Rob Bolden will start. Matt McGloin beat back any media sensationalism of the new quarterback controversy, by saying clearly that this is Bolden's team. Joe Paterno said in his press conference that he was open to playing two quarterbacks, though even some players this week have hinted they would rather just have one. Either way, Penn State showed it can develop a functional offensive scheme, absolutely destroying Michigan's woefull pass defense. Of course, that was the worst pass defense in the Big Ten, but it wasn't like Galen Hall and Jay Paterno were calling bad plays and getting lucky.

With all the interceptions, Northwestern has a much higher (38th nat'l) pass efficiency defense rank, compared to the overall pass defense (99th nat'l) giving up 244.7 yards per game. After playing an air-it-out team like Indiana last week, you would think those numbers were bloated, but that's actually not the case. Northwestern held Indiana's high powered pass attack to only 300 yards on 54 pass attempts. So what the Cats show you is what you get. They are also 85th in the nation in sacks, averaging only 1.5 per game.

Impact Spot: Interceptions... The Wildcats are making a living on defense by picking off opposing quarterbacks. Great drives can get crushed by one bad interception. Just ask Bolden after the Alabama game. Penn State played error-free football last week. But so did Michigan. Either PSU has to force a few big turnovers, or another perfect football game may be needed to win Joe's No. 400.

Evan Royster big run
Evan Royster had much more running room
last week, behind an improved O-line.
(Photo: Mike/LBU)
PSU Rush Offense vs. Northwestern

Against Michigan, Penn State looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers playing a Pop Warner team. Evan Royster was gashing the Wolverines defense for 5-, 10-, 20-yard runs all night. The positive for Penn State is that Michigan's run defense wasn't nearly as bad as the pass defense. And with Northwestern's run defense about equal to Michigan's, there is some hope for another decent ground game for the Nittany Lions. It felt like Paterno and Hall found a nice package to get Royster going a bit, using a traditional I-formation, but with three wide receivers. With the offensive line still suspect (one game doesn't show a whole lot), the extra blocker ahead of the tailback seemed to help a great deal.

Northwestern has some very good players in the front seven, with DE Vince Brown coming up with 9 tackles for loss and 6 sacks this year, and Nate Williams and Bryce McNaul sharing 10.5 TFL. LB Quentin Davie is the all-around star of the front, with 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 INTs and 6 passes defended. Most of the time Hankwitz keeps the defense vanilla, but not nearly as boring as Penn State. The Lions' offensive line will have their hands full with those guys, but they're not exactly All-Americans.

Impact Spot: The Passing Game... I've been harping on this for two weeks now. And in those two weeks, Penn State has done it with great success. The pass has to set up the run for Evan Royster, Silas Redd and Stephfon Green. Recently, there hasn't been too much running out of the shotgun, as I mentioned the emphasis on using the fullbacks. So expect more of the same one-back and I-formation packages.

The Northwestern Offense

This isn't your big brother's Wildcats offense. Randy Walker ran one of the best offensive football programs in the nation, bringing probably the most modern-looking spread offense to the Big Ten since Joe Tiller thought passing was a novel idea. But the offense Northwestern runs now is a combination of Walker's electrifying spread, and the old school style of Gary Barnett's tenure in the 1990s.

The offense this season starts and ends with quarterback Dan Persa, who leads the Big Ten in completion percentage (74.4) and leads the Wildcats in rushing. The Pennsylvania native became a hot topic this week for two reasons. First, he sustained a minor concussion last week, but has since been cleared to play. Second, in Joe Paterno's press conference this week, he admitted Penn State should have gone after Persa on the recruiting trail. Of course, Fitz would love it if a running game would actually emerge one of these years. Since Fitz took over in 2006, Northwestern hasn't averaged more than 142 yards per game in a season. Twice it's been under 120 yards per game ('07, '09).

Northwestern has been fantastic on third downs this year, converting nearly 51 percent into first downs. It could be a battle of strengths this week, as Penn State comes in with the 3rd best third down defense in the nation, allowing opponents to convert only 28 percent.

Northwestern Pass Offense vs. Penn State

With Persa at the helm, Northwestern ranks 9th nationally in passing efficiency, which is the exact stat you want on your side going into this game. Penn State has not been very good at forcing opposing quarterbacks into bad throws, incompletions, or interceptions at the right times. Frankly, many aren't sure how Penn State's pass defense is statistically so decent at 188 ypg. Northwestern will have to rely on Persa's running ability to open up holes in the PSU secondary. Denard Robinson distracted PSU so much last week, it allowed for some big broken coverages, one pass going for a 60-yard touchdown.

Michael Mauti stares down Denard Robinson
Michael Mauti is emerging as
PSU's best linebacker. (Photo: Mike/LBU)
The big problem for Penn State has been the complete lack of a pass rush this season. The Nittany Lions' front seven has only logged 9 sacks the entire season, putting them on pace for the lowest sack output since 2003 (17). That could be helped out this week by the Wildcats' totoal inability to protect Persa, giving up 27 sacks to date. Penn State's mediocre offense won the battle against a terrible Michigan defense. So let's see if the bad Penn State pass rush can win the battle against Northwestern's terrible pass protection.

Impact Spot: PSU Linebackers... Penn State had to focus on Michigan's running game so much, it was willing to sacrifice some big plays in the passing game. But Michigan didn't pose the kind of dink-and-dunk passing game Northwestern fields. Penn State's linebackers have improved (and healed) over the last few weeks, but expect the Wildcats to attack those shallow zones.

Northwestern Rush Offense vs. Penn State

Unless Cam Newton, Terrelle Pryor, or Denard Robinson is on your team, you don't want your quarterback to be the leading rusher. That's what Northwestern has had to deal with this year on the ground, as Persa is topping the rushing charts with 360 net yards (minus-141 in sacks) and six touchdowns. Last week against Indiana, Wildcats fans got all giddy about Mike Trumpy's 100-yard performance, but the sane fans know (as do PSU fans after the Michigan win) it was just Indiana.

Pete Massaro
Pete Massaro & Co. need to have
 more success on the edge.
(Photo: Mike/LBU)
 Penn State has had plenty of issues stopping the run this season, lowlighted by the Alabama, Temple, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan games. But something last week seemed to click, for although Robinson gained 190 rushing yards, the PSU defense was able to get some key stops, while showing great improvement in tackling and angles. With the middle of the line anchored by DTs Devon Still and Ollie Ogbu, Penn State may be able to get away with focusing on stopping the pass. But we'll see about that.

Impact Spot: PSU Defensive Ends... If Penn State does decide to drop six and seven into coverage this week, it will be up to the edge rushers to get pressure on Persa. That also means not allowing him to scramble for yardage, either. DEs Pete Massaro, Sean Stanley, and Jordan Hill will have a lot on their shoulders this week.

Special Teams

Special teams was as big a part of last week's win over Michigan as was the Penn State offense. Anthony Fera has averaged something like 45 yards per punt since the Iowa game, while Collin Wagner is coming off a Big Ten Special Teams POW award. It's not a game-changing difference, but Penn State is 18th nationally in net punting, while Northwestern is 42nd. The two teams are about the same in punt returns, but Penn State has a big advantage (14th nat'l) in kickoff returns over Northwestern (64th nat'l). Northwestern's kicker Stefan Demos is very good, hitting on 70 percent of his field goal attempts this year. Though, two have been blocked.

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Pass Efficiency Defense... Penn State hasn't been able to stop decent quarterbacks all season. Persa should be able to keep his completion percentage up around 60 percent in this game, even if its a bad day for Northwestern. But if Persa can reach 67 percent or better, watch out.

The Crowd... A letdown game for the team is always a worry, but what about the fans? Especially if you consider this weekend may not be the best weather (cold, slight chance of rain). Thankfully, this is a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, allowing plenty of time for the students to drag themselves out of bed. All I have to say is this: If this student body can't motivate themselves to show up early for Joe Paterno's 400th career victory, then all student tickets should be deactivated and sold off to the general public. Yeah, I'm done with this crap the students are pulling.


This is it. Win No. 400 for the greatest college football coach in the history of the game. He may even end his career as the greatest football coach, period. All the indicators point to a Penn State win this week. It's a mid-afternoon kickoff. Northwestern has been shaky recently. The Nittany Lions are coming off the best performance overall this season. The emotion factor is through the roof. This has to be one of those games where the team comes out with a fire, as should the fans in the stands. Every first down, every completion, every defensive stop, every score is one closer to making history this Saturday. Can Penn State seize this moment? Let's hope.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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1 comment:

  1. I honestly think win No. 400 will be the difference in this game, I would be shocked if A) the players didn't come out fired up and B)the crowd wasn't fired up. But like you Mike I'm still not counting on the students getting in by game time. *sigh*