Back Physical Nittany Lions to Devour Northwestern in Big Ten Matchup

penn state northwestern

Rainman M.

Thursday, October 5, 2017 1:56 PM GMT

Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 1:56 PM GMT

No. 4 Penn State (5-0) travels to Northwestern (2-2) Saturday at Noon ET. The Nittany Lions opened as 13.5-point favorites, but that number has been bet up a bit.

Penn State at Northwestern

The main question confronting Northwestern is whether it can establish a rushing attack.  In both losses this season, star tailback Justin Jackson averaged less than 3 yards per carry. In both wins, he rushed for more than 100 yards. In 5 of 6 losses last season, Jackson ran for less than 100 yards. In 5 of 7 wins, Jackson ran for more than 100.

Last year, Northwestern's offensive line was generally unreliable and this year it remains inconsistent. Last week, Wisconsin had 8 sacks and 11 tackles for loss against Northwestern. Jackson averaged 2.8 yards per carry. Northwestern, 109th in sack percentage allowed, has major struggles with protection.

Penn State, 20th in rush yards allowed per attempt and 31st in sack percentage, boasts a dominating defensive line. Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren excel at occupying opposing blockers and causing disruption in the backfield. The two interior tackles are complemented by youthful talent at defensive end. Shareef Miller complements Ryan Buchholz's strength with his speed and length. But the leader of Penn State's defense is linebacker Jason Cabinda.

Northwestern will struggle to establish a rhythm offensively because of its offensive line. The Wildcats possess a talented quarterback in Clayton Thorson. But his completion percentage suffers from lack of protection. Thorson won't make up for the struggles of his teammates against a secondary that is 7th in yards allowed per pass attempt.

The Wildcats' defensive line lost 3 of 4 starters and has regressed from last year. For example, lowly Nevada rushed for an average of 5.5 yards per carry against NU. Also, Duke ran for 233 yards and the Blue Devils' leading rusher averaged 6.8 yards per carry.

The offensive line for Penn State is led by exponentially improving youth. Ryan Bates at left tackle and Connor McGovern earned All-Freshman honors last year. All Big-Ten right guard Brendan Mahon contributes veteran presence and has the necessary size in order to effectively block Northwestern's two defensive tackles.

NU will focus on Penn State running back and Heisman betting favorite Saquon Barkley. Barkley draws comparison to Steelers superstar Le'Veon Bell due to his patience and vision in attacking holes on the inside. His agility allows him to bounce outside and force defenders to miss tackles due to his elusiveness in open space. He is versatile in that he possesses breakaway speed but can also truck defenders. Northwestern lacks the defensive playmakers to contain Barkley.

Lions QB Trace McSorley should be able to exploit Northwestern's focus on Barkley. Plus, the Wildcats' secondary is banged-up with injuries to three players who had been depended on to contribute significant playing time. The secondary will be extra vulnerable due to its defense's attention to Barkley. Because McSorley consistently excels at the deep ball, he will be able to exploit the opportunities down the field that Wisconsin's quarterback missed last week.  McSorley also enjoys a stacked wide receiving corps led by the skilled route-runner DaeSean Hamilton.

 

The Verdict

Penn State likely will get a boost from special teams and turnovers.  Barkley is a special teams star and Northwestern ranks 110th in giveaways. Bad news for the Wildcats: Dating to last season, teams that faced Wisconsin are 4-10 the week after, the wins being against low-level competition.

Free NCAAF Pick: Penn State -14.5Best Line Offered: Pinnacle

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