Who has the edge? Penn State vs. Northwestern.
Penn State’s big men finally put together a decent and consistent game. The Nittany Lions manhandled the Massachusetts Minutemen in Week 4 and paved the way for a season-high 228 rushing yards. Can they do it again? Northwestern has been slightly better as they’re averaging 115 rushing yards per game and have allowed eight sacks to Penn State’s 10. The Wildcats also have experience on their side. Center Brandon Vitabile is in his fourth-year as a starter while left tackle Paul Jorgensen and left guard Geoff Mogus are both returning starters, as is right guard Matt Frazier. Northwestern doesn’t have the biggest right side — Frazier and young right tackle Eric Olson weigh in at a combined 580 pounds. Penn State’s Derek Dowrey, who started in place of Brian Gaia, played well at right guard. Advantage: Push
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Christian Hackenberg attributed his lackluster start against UMass to poor mechanics. It shouldn’t take him too many tweaks to right himself. He’s usually one to bounce back from poor games with big ones. He followed up a 13-for-35, interception game against Kent State last season by completing 55 percent of his throws for three touchdowns against Indiana. Meanwhile a sore ankle has limited Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian. The Wildcat QB hasn’t done much through the air. He’s completing nearly 60 percent of his passes but has thrown for just 614 yards and two touchdowns to two interceptions. Hackenberg has more than doubled that with 1,261 yards, albeit with one more game under his belt. Advantage: Penn State
Northwestern has been at its best when it’s allowed one back to carry the bulk of the load. That happened in the Wildcats’ lone win, when freshman Justin Jackson emerged to carry the ball 21 times. He’s the team’s leading rusher with 184 yards. Burly 220-pound Treyvon Green has 31 carries for 101 yards. Jackson is quick and has been used as a receiver out of the backfield. At 190 pounds, he teams with the 185-pound Solomon Vault to form a quick duo that can be dangerous in the second level. Penn State knows exactly what it will get from Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. All three did a much better job of hitting holes when they were open and not trying to bounce runs outside when they weren’t there vs. UMass. Expect all three to be involved again. Advantage: Penn State
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Last week was a relatively quiet game for Penn State’s top two targets as Penn State turned primarily to its running game. Still, Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton were effective and combined for nine catches for 147 of Hackenberg’s 179 passing yards. Jesse James continues to be a reliable target from intermediate range and down the field. Kyle Carter has to find his hands as he’s dropped multiple passes in each of the last two games. Chris Godwin continues to get more looks among Penn State’s true freshmen. The injury bug has hit Northwestern’s receiving corps, too. The Wildcats could get Tony Jones back from injury, however, and the continued absence of Christian Jones could give slotback Dan Vitale a chance to build on his team-leading 11 catches as well as provide 6-foot-5, 225-pound Kyle Prater with more opportunities to use his size. A former Southern California recruit, Prater is becoming Northwestern’s most dangerous receiver. Keep your eye on Stephen Buckley, who switched to slot receiver in the offseason after leading the team with 5.3 yards per carry as a running back last season. Advantage: Penn State
Penn State’s Austin Johnson said he believes Penn State has the best defensive line in the country right now — and the stats don’t lie. Johnson, like teammate Anthony Zettel on the inside, has helped the Nittany Lions to the nation’s top spot in rushing defense a third of the way through the season. Zettel shows no signs of slowing down and is tied for sixth in the nation with seven tackles for loss. Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan continue to be solid on the ends. Northwestern’s front four are led by 6-foot-6, 280-pound Dean Lowry. He’s got 21/2 sacks on the season and has played on the inside and at end. Sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo is emerging as this unit’s playmaker. He’s got two sacks and is earning more time with every game. He’s the team’s primary pass-rusher on third downs. Advantage: Penn State
Chi Chi Ariguzo has put together a nice career at Northwestern and leads a solid group of linebackers into action with 19 tackles. He’s got six career interceptions and seems to have a knack for coming up with big plays. He recently recovered a blocked field goal against Western Illinois. Team captain Collin Ellis, who has 18 tackles on the season, will miss the game with an injury. Drew Smith and Jimmy Hall have combined for starts at the second outside spot. Mike Hull continues to lead Penn State and is fifth in the Big Ten with 37 stops. Nyeem Wartman played his best game as a Nittany Lion last week, and his role has expanded to include more coverage responsibilities. Wartman’s ability to play field linebacker has come in handy to spell sophomore Brandon Bell, who has been effective as a blitzer. Gary Wooten has gotten experience in the last two games and could see more time in the rotation for the Nittany Lions. Advantage: Penn State
The Wildcats have a mix of youth and experience in their secondary. Cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Ibraheim Campbell have both started the past two seasons. Campbell is a physical force and has made plays throughout his career. He had four interceptions last season, and he and Campbell each have one this season. Sophomore corner Matthew Harris has been busy in his first year starting. Teams have often thrown his way, forcing the 180-pound cornerback to make 22 tackles. Overall, this group is allowing 257 passing yards per game and has given up six touchdown passes. Penn State’s starters, meanwhile, haven’t allowed a touchdown pass in 12 quarters and are allowing 221 yards per game. Christian Campbell and Marcus Allen are the most recent players to get involved. Cornerback Trevor Williams is playing his best football and Jordan Lucas is due for a big play. Advantage: Penn State
Northwestern has returned fewer punts than Penn State. The Wildcats have brought back just three to the Nittany Lions’ six. Meanwhile, Wildcat kicker Jack Mitchell has attempted just two kicks in his career, both makes. Sam Ficken gives Penn State an experience edge should the game come down to a field goal. Both teams field solid kickoff coverage teams. The Wildcats have blocked three kicks — a punt, field goal and an extra point — over the last two games, however. Penn State’s Grant Haley continues to be a special teams dynamo. Advantage: Push
It’s been a tough stretch for the Wildcats. Since a highly anticipated midseason matchup with Ohio State last season, Northwestern has lost nine of its last 11 games. This season the Wildcats lost a handful of key contributors to injury and their best player, running back Venric Mark, who transferred. Penn State has steadily built confidence and finally put together a strong running game last week. The Nittany Lions have made 18 trips into the red zone and have scored 15 times with eight touchdowns. The Wildcats have driven the ball into the red area just eight times. Advantage: Penn State