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Northwestern Breakdown: Who Are The Key Players?

After an unusual Big Ten opener early in the season against Rutgers, the Nittany Lions will begin five straight games against conference opponents this weekend when it takes on Northwestern at noon Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

The game will cap Homecoming Week at Penn State, and the team is looking for a win to stay among the 25 remaining unbeaten teams in the FBS.

Northwestern (1-2) is coming off its first win of the season, and is looking to improve on its 1-7 conference record from 2013. The Wildcats defeated FCS-level Western Illinois following close losses to Cal and Northern Illinois to begin the 2014 campaign.

Before kickoff, take a look at the players to watch on the Northwestern side when the Wildcats take the field.

Trevor Siemian, QB – The team’s starter since 2012, Siemian has seen moderate success as the Wildcats signal caller. Lifetime, the senior from Windermere, Fl., has completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 4331 yards with 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. This season, he’s completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 614 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions.

Throughout Siemian’s career, Northwestern’s offense has utilized short, quick throws while he’s been under center with the goal of getting the ball to receivers in space and limiting turnovers. Gone are the days when dual-threat QB Kain Colter and Venric Mark ran the read option, keeping the opposing defense on its toes and opening up the passing lanes for Siemian. With Colter having graduated and Mark transferring from the program, Siemian is left with junior Dan Vitale, a converted running back, as his leading receiver. In the backfield, he’s flanked by a trio of backs, including a pair of freshman. Northwestern’s offense has been stagnant so far this season, ranking 103rd in the FBS with a paltry 4.54 yards per play. Siemian has been a large reason why, as he’s struggled to find any rhythm. The Wildcats passing offense ranks 74th in the FBS, averaging a hair over six yards per attempt.

Without a formidable running game or game-breaking wide receiver, Siemian is simply an average quarterback. He’s shown potential to put up big numbers (notably torching Illinois in the final game of last season, going 31-44 for 414 yards and four touchdowns), but unless Penn State’s defense suffers a meltdown in the secondary, he’ll be limited on Saturday, especially while fighting a nagging ankle injury.

Justin Jackson, Treyvon Green, Solomon Vault, RBs – Like Penn State, Northwestern features a running back by committee. Jackson (#28) is the bell cow of the trio, leading the team in carries (41), rushing yards (184), and touchdowns (2) through the first three games of the season. The freshman from Carol Stream, Ill., has also proved to be a threat out of the backfield, catching five passes for 35 yards.

Solomon Vault (#15) has been held to only 16 carries, but the freshman has made the most of his limited opportunities. The Gaithersburg, Md., native scored two touchdowns in the win over Western Illinois, including an 11-yard scamper early in the first half.

Treyvon Green (#22) is the elder statesman of the group, with 287 carries for 1,272 yards and 13 touchdowns in his career. The senior from Mesquite, Texas shined last season, rushing for 736 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

All three running backs stand at a similar height and weight, with no player towering over 5 feet 11 inches. Green is the heaviest of the bunch, weighing in at 215 pounds, so don’t expect to see a power running game from the Wildcats. These backs will make their hay outside the tackles.

Dan Vitale, Superback – You read that correctly. Vitale occupies Northwestern’s esteemed superback position, a hybrid between tight end and fullback. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches and 237 pounds, Vitale is a rare combination of speed and strength, making him both an excellent blocker and pass catcher. He finished third on the team in receptions (34) and touchdown catches (3) in 2013. This year, he leads the team with 11 catches and ranks third in yards with 103, although he’s been shut out of the endzone thus far. The junior from Wheaton, Ill., could prove to be a matchup nightmare for Penn State’s linebackers, so be sure to keep an eye on the Wildcats do-it-all playmaker.

Ibraheim Campbell, S, and Dean Lowry, DL – Campbell is Northwestern’s prized defender, a safety capable of making big plays and disrupting opposing wide receivers. He was injured during the loss against Cal, but not before he could snag his first interception of the season. He’s sat out the last two games and is currently listed as day-to-day, but be aware of #24 if he makes it onto the field on Saturday. The two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention is a valuable run stopper, and has nine career interceptions.

Lowry, a 6 foot 6 inch, 280 pound monster of a defensive lineman, leads the team in sacks with 2.5 through three games. As a sophomore, he started only nine games and yet finished tied for the second on the team with seven tackles for loss and third in sacks with 4.5. This year, the junior has been solid up front, and could prove a force to be reckoned with if the offensive line continues to struggle.

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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