Staff Predictions: Penn State vs. Northwestern
James Franklin’s best opportunity so far to beat a ranked opponent at Penn State is here. The Nittany Lions are in Evanston, Illinois this weekend to take on the No. 21 Northwestern Wildcats. After starting off the season undefeated, Northwestern has hit a slump with two straight blowout losses before squeaking by Nebraska. Penn State, on the other hand, is 7-2 and is coming off its best win of the season, though its two losses have come in its two road games. All things considered, our staff is mostly confident in Penn State’s chances at an upset this Saturday.
Matt Coleman (season record 6-2): Penn State 21, Northwestern 20
This game places two teams who are very equally matched in a B1G game which will likely decide bowl destinations for either team. Whichever team wins has a much better chance of finding itself in a quality New Year’s Day bowl compared to a bowl played on a December afternoon.
With that being said, last week, Penn State played one of the best games it has played under James Franklin. If the quality and completeness from that game can carry over into this one, Penn State will win without a doubt. The problem is this team hasn’t shown enough consistency this year to say a repeat performance is in store for this game.
Last week, Christian Hackenberg looked comfortable in the pocket, stepping up and finding receivers downfield the way a top-rated quarterback should. When a blitz came, he didn’t panic.
Northwestern’s quarterback, redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, has surpassed any expectations set for him this year, and he is leading Northwestern to one of its best seasons in a long time. The Wildcats’ defense has been stingy all year, but the last three games it has given up 38, 40, and 28 points. I expect Christian Hackenberg to continue his great play from last game and lead the Nittany Lions to a win in Chicago by finding ways to exploit the recent struggles of the Northwestern defense.
Doug Leeson (season record 7-2): Penn State 28, Northwestern 10
I think of myself as this staff’s pessimist when it’s time for our staff predictions. I generally have the lowest scoring predictions with the narrowest margins of victory. Last week, I said Penn State would beat Illinois by one point instead of 39 — one of the worst predictions of the year, other than anyone who thought Penn State would beat Ohio State. I’m taking the week off from the half-empty glass and making my case in the other direction.
Three games ago, Northwestern got shut out, two games ago it scored ten points, and last game it scored 30 points and barely beat a Nebraska team that has allowed 30 points four times this season. Going against Bob Shoop’s defense is a nightmare.
And on offense, John Donovan looked pretty good last week and Christian Hackenberg looked elite. I think Penn State is clearly better in every facet except special teams, but will be able to flaunt that en route to a comfortable victory. Also, Hackenberg, let me be the first to congratulate you. By the end of Saturday afternoon, you’ll have the most touchdown passes in Penn State football history.
Kaitlyn Dividock (season record 7-1): Penn State 24, Northwestern 17
The one thing about this game that really strikes my interest is the fact that Northwestern’s ranked at No. 21 (even though I don’t agree with it.) What also drives my interest is how this is the first ranked opponent Penn State will actually have a solid chance against, and ultimately, beat.
However, James Franklin’s attitude going into this game is worrisome to say the least. The usually (and annoyingly) always-positive coach got a little snippy during his media conference Wednesday when asked about the difficulties of playing on Wildcat turf. Add the handful of Northwestern players that can do a decent amount of damage into that equation, and anxiety pushes its way through the cracks. The Wildcats’ quarterback, running back, and fullback are undoubtedly very good, and they have a pretty quality defense that could potentially stir up some trouble.
But here’s the catch, the Nittany Lions are just…well, better. Hackenberg is better than Clayton Thorson, Saquon is better than Justin Jackson, and I’d take Penn State’s “Wild Dogs” over Northwestern’s Wildcats any day. Put money on Penn State winning and (possibly) securing its first top-25 ranking come Sunday.
Ben Berkman (season record 8-1): Northwestern 24, Penn State 20
Saturday’s trip to Northwestern begins the final quarter of the season for Penn State, a three-game stretch that is the second-hardest in the country.
The trip to Evanston spells trouble for Penn State for several reasons. James Franklin mentioned that 11 a.m. games for teams not used to them (read: Penn State) often produce slow starts, a consequence the Lions cannot afford to surrender against the efficient Wildcats. He also vaguely suggested that Northwestern’s “different” environment worries him, but he didn’t elaborate. It may be the fact that the stadium (capacity less than 50,000) is eerily small, or the grass is cut longer than most speed-focused Big Ten venues.
Regardless, the Lions, in possibly their most important game of the year, could easily get trapped in several ways against the Wildcats, and may very well start this challenging stretch off with a sobering loss. The hype produced by shutting out Illinois may be nice, but until Penn State produces a true Big Ten road win, it’s 6-0 home start doesn’t mean that much.
Patrick Koerbler (season record 7-0): Northwestern 14, Penn State 13
As much as I’d like to trust the offense and be as positive as James Franklin, I can’t pull myself to do so. The offensive outing against Illinois was impressive, but it also was the product of the Illini defense deciding not to bring consistent pressure, allowing Hackenberg to get into a rhythm. I don’t think a good Northwestern defense is going to play a reactionary style of game, but rather will look to bring pressure the same way Temple did. In lieu of that, could we see a redo performance of the Maryland game, where Hackenberg’s deep heaves were hauled in by Chris Godwin and company? Sure, but that’s not the type of offensive style that I’d want to put my faith in.
It’s also important to note that it’ll be an early start in Illinois, and with Penn State potentially looking forward to its bye week and the upcoming Michigan game, I feel like this could be a dreaded lookahead spot for the Nittany Lions. As weird as that may sound considering the Wildcats are a ranked team, I just get a bad feeling about this Saturday’s matchup.
Lastly, let’s keep in mind that I’m a senior. This is my last football season as a student, and the only thing I want is for Penn State to be 8-2 going into the Michigan game. Unfortunately, I have terrible luck with the teams I follow, so it’s doubtful the football gods will grant my wish. Sorry, we can blame me for the loss.