Aaron Yorke was kind enough to sit down (or maybe he stands when he types, I don't know his life) with me to preview the Northwestern matchup with Penn State this weekend. First, the vitals:
Where: Beaver Stadium
Series: Penn State leads (duh), 13-3 (7-1 at home) including victories that are vacated because who cares
MNW: Matt McGloin has no more eligibility, right? Like, none? Asking for my liver. In addition to that, how are general feelings in State College right now? You're already going onto conference game #2, seemingly finding a little offensive stride, and cleared for bowl games. Gotta feel pretty nice.
AY: Big Coin McGloin! Yes, unfortunately his Wildcat-slaying days are over, but the quarterback did leave Nittany Lion fans with a bunch of warm, fuzzy memories during his time in State College. It's still funny that the old coaching staff couldn't decide between McGloin and current Eastern Michigan quarterback Rob Bolden for the longest time. Thank goodness for Bill O'Brien.
Anyway, Penn State fans are really psyched right now. The combination of the sanction relief and struggles by Ohio State and Michigan have made the possibility of a conference championship seem very real. There are still hurdles to overcome, though. Despite some flashes of brilliance by Christian Hackenberg and a lovely running performance against UMass, the offense isn't where it needs to be right now.
For all his potential and late-game heroics, Hackenberg has just four touchdowns to go with five picks in four games this season. Also, his completion percentage has dropped every week until he completed just 12 of 23 passes against the Minutemen last Saturday. Sure, the Lions didn't need him that day, but offensive coordinator John Donovan has got to figure out a way to more consistently move the ball down the field.
Can't really say anything bad about the defense. DT Anthony Zettel has become a breakout star and the unit overall is very impressive.
So how go things in Evanston? I know I expected the 'Cats to be 3-0 right now. What has gone wrong and can NU still have a bounce-back season?
MNW: Thank God he's gone. Just...thank God. Things in Evanston are pretty bleak right now. The offense has been abysmal despite flashes of promise (finally) from senior transfer Kyle Prater and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler, along with freshman RBs Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault. Pat Fitzgerald and OC Mick McCall remain defiant in interviews, insisting that we can be a power-running team, despite literally nothing in Fitzgerald's tenure suggesting that this is a team built to put 2 TEs on the line and power the ball through people. Wherever the spread has gone, the 'Cats need to find it in a damn hurry. Then again, Trevor Siemian's heel and seeming fetish for the checkdown has me wondering if someone push a Greg Davis mask on McCall, anyways.
Anyways, there's...um...good news? Ever since the inexplicably inexcusable first half against Cal, the Wildcats' defense has been...passable, and Ifeadi Odenigbo was a stud against WIU. He's a bit undersized, but he can be a good speed rusher who could give Hack some troubles. After a first game and a half of some of the worst punting I've ever seen, Chris Gradone has put it together, and Jack Mitchell has been a serviceable walk-on kicker, albeit one with no range that we know of.
But yeah, nothing in Evanston, save for my half-baked theory of an epic slow-play by Fitzgerald and Co., suggests that this Northwestern team is better than a 4- or 5-win team. And shame on us for believing it, I guess. How they bounce back? Spread the goddamn ball out. Is that overly simplistic? Yes? I don't care. It's clear that this offense is not working, and Fitz does not appear to get it.
Sorry about that. Long first month of football. Let's talk matchups. Where do you think Penn State can exploit Northwestern (on either side of the ball), and vice versa? I've got my own ideas--most of them involve Northwestern being exploited--but would be interested to see how they match up to yours.
AY: I'm glad you brought up Ifeadi Odenigbo, because a good speed rusher is something that could give Penn State trouble. Also, I'm glad we're not doing this verbally because the kid's name is hard enough to type (thank you copy and paste). Anyway, PSU has an inexperienced offensive line and we saw in the Rutgers game that a good pass rush can shut down the PSU attack, so Odenigbo will be a key player in this game.
If State can run the ball like they did against UMass, there would be a lot of pressure taken off the passing game. Unfortunately, the only team the Lions have been able to run on is UMass. If Northwestern can stop the run and get some pressure on Hackenberg, the Wildcats have a chance to force some turnovers on defense.
If the 'Cats fail to get pressure on Hackenberg, watch out. The kid has an unbelievable arm and has the whole field available to himself at all times. I'd just like to see him check down more to running back Bill Belton and not try to fit the ball into small spaces as much.
I'm not sure where the weakness to the Lions' defense is yet. A spread-out passing attack is probably Northwestern's best bet. Akron had some success with that early in their game against PSU before the Lions adjusted and held the Zips to just three points. Still, the Lions' front seven has proven to be stout against the run so far, so Northwestern's best shot is to force as many defensive backs onto the field as possible.
Where are the Wildcats susceptible on defense? Can the Lions run on them or will they struggle on the ground like they did in their first three games?
MNW: I really hope the announcers learn how to say Odenigbo (hint: don't pronounce the "g"), because that'd mean we'll be getting good push into the backfield. InsideNU did some really interesting work on Northwestern's run defense, though I'm hitherto unconvinced that we'll be able to slow down Zwinak, who racked up 121 yards on 28 carries the last time we played.
The 'Cats on defense are surprisingly passable, but I think if Penn State can control the line of attack, they'll get Zwinak and Belton running downhill and they'll roll. If Northwestern can control the point of attack, seeing Hackenberg go up against a halfway decent secondary led by Nick VanHoose and Ibraheim Campbell could be a fun matchup. I think the Lions will struggle on the ground to start the game, but as things wear on, Northwestern's lack of depth up front will wear out and struggle to top the ball. Then again, if Northwestern can get a lead and force Penn State to throw the ball, things will get interesting.
What--if anything--scares you about Northwestern? I know the offense looks pretty abysmal, but how can Northwestern expose the Lions?
AY: Trevor Siemian and the Northwestern passing attack are what scare me most about this game. Sure, he hasn't put up huge numbers so far, but Siemian is an experienced signal caller who might be the most talented quarterback to face Penn State this season. Look at what UCF quarterback Justin Holman did when he came into the game against PSU in Week 1: 9-for-14 for 204 yards and a touchdown.
The Lions did a better job against Kyle Pohl (4.5 yards per attempt) and Gary Nova (50 percent completion rate, five picks), but last week UMass's Blake Frohnapfel came in and threw for 8.0 yards per attempt with zero interceptions. I'm still confident that Penn State has a good all-around defense, but if there's one place where it can be exploited, it's through the air against a secondary that hasn't been seriously tested yet.
How are the NU folk looking at this game? Do they see Penn State as prime to be upset (there certainly have been close calls), or do they still need to see more from the Wildcats before seriously considering a big win on the road?
MNW: Where's the little shrug emoji? That's how I feel about this game. I think the Northwestern faithful (myself included) have already put our fatalist hats on, just waiting out the year and prepared for the dagger in Big Ten play of early games against Wisconsin and Penn State. Add in the history of Northwestern shitting itself against Penn State under Pat Fitzgerald, and I think there are just a lot of things turning 'Cats fans off about this game.
That said, Northwestern needs to execute offensively in a way we haven't seen this fall to have a chance. If they do, maybe this game is close headed into the fourth quarter.
I suppose we'll wrap up with two things for you: (1) How do you see Penn State finishing up in the East? Chances to beat MSU or OSU and have a shot at Indy? (2) Prediction for the game?
AY: I think Penn State will finish third in the East. Despite a loss to Oregon, Michigan State is still the clash of the division with lots of talent on both sides of the ball. I think J.T. Barrett will improve enough to give the Buckeyes a shot of upending the Lions in State College, and the division looks a little tougher now that Maryland has started well and Indiana has won in SEC country. Third sounds about right for a Penn State team that is still struggling to get its offense going behind an inexperienced line.
Penn State has a chance against both MSU and OSU thanks to both matches being at home. The defense should keep the team in games all season long. However, I need to see some more out of the Lions to convince me that this team is ready to defeat a division contender. I'll gladly take a split of the MSU and OSU games, but that probably won't be enough for a division title. For that, the Lions will probably have to run the table give how talented Sparty is.
As for Saturday, I think Penn State wins 24-10. Another so-so game on offense and a strong defensive effort. I'm hoping the Lions can surprise me and put up a few more points. Of course, there's always the chance that I'm surprised in a bad way instead.
What about Northwestern? They've gotten off to a poor start, but the West seems wide open, espeically considering how NU has matched up with Nebraska lately. Can the 'Cats possibly make a run at Indy? What is your prediction for the PSU game?
MNW: Northwestern's just not offensively explosive enough to make a run at the B1G West. As of now, I still think it's Wisconsin to lose, as they welcome Nebraska to Camp Randall in mid-November. Northwestern could finish anywhere from 7th to 3rd, though. Iowa and Minnesota both have their flaws, and I'm not convinced that Illinois is better than Northwestern (nor Purdue, obviously). A run at Indy ONLY happens if the stars align, the chevrons lock, and the Hale-Bopp comet returns to land directly on Melvin Gordon. Oh, and Trevor Siemian stops checking down every pass.
I'll take Penn State, 24-20, with the 'Cats scoring a late touchdown and failing to recover the onside.