Five Things: Penn State vs Northwestern

By: Thomas Frank Carr

  1. Second Quarter Slump

For a full breakdown of the Nittany Lions struggles in the second quarter, check out this article on Trace McSorley earlier this week. Here’s the short version;

In games vs Pitt, Iowa and Indiana, Trace McSorley has thrown three of his four interceptions, 39% completion percentage and 121 yards in the second quarter of those games. These quarter-long slumps have caused some unrest among Penn State fans.

Here’s the good news, He’s completing 71% of his passes for nearly 650 yards and seven touchdowns in the nine other quarters in those games. He’s been lights out other than three individual quarters versus Division I teams this year. If McSorley struggles in the second quarter vs Northwestern it might not matter to the final score but the trend cannot continue the rest of the season if the Nittany Lions want to reach the College Football Playoff.

  1. Kicking Confidence

Tyler Davis has struggled through the first month of the season hitting on only 5-11 field goal attempts. This season. James Franklin has a positive spin for the kicker, independent of the unit,

“If you take the blocks out of there, he’s doing pretty good. We’re just going to continue to work through it. We’ve got a new holder. We’ve got a new snapper, and like I’ve said, the blocks really aren’t on him. Our operation time was fine. I wouldn’t say the kicks were overly low. It’s just when you don’t block a guy through a gap and he comes screaming through free, they are going to block the kick.”

Regardless of the reasons, a blocked or missed field goal is demoralizing for not only the team, but the kicker. Having a solid week vs Northwestern is critical for Davis’ confidence and the confidence that the team has in him.


  1. Varied but not Dynamic

In one drive vs Wisconsin, Northwestern lined up in The Pistol, ran a read, option, lined up with the quarterback under center, and ran some traditional pro-style plays. Northwestern does a bit of everything on offense. That level of offensive variation and formational diversity has the potential to confuse a defense and that’s their plan. The Penn State defense must play with discipline on Saturday or they could be gashed by an experienced quarterback who is very dangerous when he gets hot.

Justin Jackson is a good runner who isn’t as dynamic as a back like Akrum Wadley, but is a very good runner and receiver. Bottling up the two most dangerous players, Thorson and Jackson, will be the key to stopping the Wildcats offense. The Nittany Lions stymied a dynamic passing attack vs Indiana last week and should have no problem stopping the Northwestern receivers.

  1. Big Day for D-Line

However, just like Iowa, Northwestern comes into this game with a shuffled offensive line. Left guard Blake Hance played tackle last week and was replaced by J.B Bulter. The ‘Cats have Thomas listed as the starter this week on the depth chart but Jared Thomas played right tackle some last week as well. It will be interesting to see what Pat Fitzgerald comes out with on Saturday.

No matter what he decides, the line must be better for Northwestern. As a unit they allowed eight sacks and only 81 yards rushing vs Wisconsin last week. This could be a breakout game for the Nittany Lions front four who have gotten more pressure than sacks through five games this season.

  1. Athletes in Space

If you’ve ever watched Northwestern play football, you know what you’re going to get. This Northwestern team is no different. During their game vs Wisconsin last week, they forced two fumbles in the first six plays for the Badgers but did very little with it. In their game vs Duke, they took advantage of poor passes and picked several off in the first quarter.

The point is that Northwestern will take advantage of very mistake you make pay. That’s not to say that they don’t have athletes. Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson are good athletes who can make plays and on defense James Franklin pointed to defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster as a game wrecking interior lineman who could cause his offense trouble.

Outside of Lancaster, Godwin Igwebuike and Paddy Fisher are talented players, but the roster of athletes gets slim after that. The rest of their defenders will try to ‘tough guy’ their way into plays and out-hustle offensive players to the ball. If you put an offense in a box, tough guys can make more plays than they can when they’re matched up in space.

This is a game where Saquon Barkley out of the backfield, Brandon Polk underneath, and Mike Gesicki (if he plays) could have a huge week. It wouldn’t be a bad week to bring back the Tommy Stevens Project either.