Northwestern, Penn State both looking for key win to boost bowl resumes
Who: Penn State vs. Northwestern
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
Where: Ryan Field, Northwestern
Spread: Northwestern -2.5
Matchup to watch: Penn State D-Line vs. Clayton Thorson
Find me a defensive line that’s more skilled than Penn State’s. If it was just Carl Nassib to worry about coming off the end, that would be one thing. Unfortunately for Thorson, it’s not. He still has to deal with Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson, both of whom are capable of collapsing the pocket in a hurry. It’ll be interesting to see how much the Wildcats try to get Thorson rolling out to avoid Penn State’s pass rush. Thorson did have success running against Nebraska, and the Lions did struggle against mobile quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Perry Hills. You have to think Northwestern is watching a lot of film on those two games.
Thing I’m excited to see: Saquon Barkley highlight-reel runs
That hurdle Barkley had last week was the most impressive physical play I’ve seen on the offensive side in the B1G this year. I’d argue it was even more impressive than any Ezekiel Elliott hurdle or Braxton Miller spin. The hurdle is becoming more and more common in college football, but Barkley took it to new heights. He basically launched himself at the 4-yard line and scored. You can’t coach that. That’s what happens when freakish athleticism meets incredible football instincts. Barkley seems to have a play or two every week that just make you step back and marvel. That should be no different against the Cats.
Number to remember: 32
That’s the amount of rushing yards Justin Jackson averaged in Northwestern’s last three games. The Wildcats former workhorse back only has one touchdown all year and does not look like the same guy that set the tone in non-conference play. Part of that could be the competition. Jackson battled three of the top 13 run defenses in the country, and only received 36 total carries because of it. We should see a lot more of Jackson to help take some pressure of Thorson with that lethal Penn State pass rush. If they struggle to establish the run with Jackson again, it could be a sign of a greater problem with the Northwestern offense.
Prediction: Penn State 28, Northwestern 24
The Lions finally look like they have it figured out. Christian Hackenberg isn’t running for his life, the receivers are reaching their potential, and the defense isn’t missing tackles anymore. The offensive line is never going to be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be for the Lions to be successful. I’m not convinced Northwestern has enough reliable offensive options to string touchdown drives together against the Lions. As long as Penn State can keep Dean Lowry from blowing up plays in the backfield, the Lions should be able to get their best win of the season.