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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.

Ethan Kasales (season record 7-1): Penn State 20, Northwestern 17

The Nittany Lions are rolling after perhaps the best all-around performance of James Franklin’s tenure, a dominant shutout of Illinois last weekend. But Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats and the quaint Ryan Field present a different task altogether this Saturday.
During the open media portion of practice Wednesday, Franklin noted that Penn State is second only to the high-flying Baylor Bears in chunk plays of 30 yards or more. Christian Hackenberg and his prolific corps of receivers are a big reason for that eye-opening stat, but No. 21 Northwestern features a stout defense of its own, so points should be a bit tougher to come by in Evanston.
While nothing will compare to the 2005 last-minute miracle dime from Michael Robinson to Derrick Williams, I could see the deciding factor of this fall’s B1G clash coming down to some late-game heroics as well.

David Abruzzese (season record 7-2): Penn State 24, Northwestern 10

Before I begin, let me say this. A Big Ten East divisional crown is not out of the realm of possibility for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions. Ohio State and Michigan State, both owning undefeated records, are the only two teams that sit ahead of Penn State in the Big Ten Standings. The Lions fell to Ohio State, earlier in the month of October, but still face Michigan State in a regular season showdown in East Lansing. Factor in that Ohio State still has matchups against Michigan and Michigan State, and the season’s final three games become much more interesting.
What does all this mean for Saturday’s contest? Penn State doesn’t embark on a no-holds-barred run to the promised land if it doesn’t defeat No. 21 Northwestern. Although the Wildcats suffered a deflating two-game stretch earlier in the season, falling to Michigan 38-0 followed by a 40-10 drubbing by Iowa, don’t sleep on Pat Fitzgerald’s program.
Led by dual-threat quarterback Clayton Thorson and sophomore sensation Justin Jackson, Northwestern is dangerous. Though the Wildcats struggle through the air, they excel on the ground thanks to the rushing threat posed by Thorson, who leads the team with five rushing touchdowns. J.T. Barrett and Perry Hills exposed a weakness in Penn State’s front seven, and expect the Wildcats to exploit that weakness even further. Fitzgerald will go for the jugular, meaning Christian Hackenberg and Co. need to be sharp and effective when given the opportunity.
Saturday’s matchup might spark a storybook run to the top, or it could portend a demoralizing late-season collapse if the Lions leave Evanston without a win. Regardless, nothing comes to fruition without a victory on Saturday.

Jacob Abrams (season record 8-1): Penn State 20, Northwestern 17

I understand that Northwestern is now ranked under the college football playoff rankings, but I don’t buy it. Northwestern was a strong team at the beginning of the season, but has lost its touch in the past three weeks thanks to two humiliating losses and one close victory. While I think it’ll be a close bout, the Nittany Lions are riding too much momentum to be slowed down.
Penn State looked very impressive against Illinois. Even if it was against a 4-3 Illinois team, a 39-0 victory is an achievement no matter who the opponent is. The defense never looked stronger, Christian Hackenberg is having a resurgence to his season, and the team overall is heading into the final three games of the season with a lot of momentum.
This is another game where Hackenberg can shine, going against a Northwestern defense that allows 310 passing yards per game. His reestablished use of the deep ball and trust with his receiving corps will be key in the matchup on offense.
Penn State’s defense will have a decent matchup against the Northwestern’s attack. What the Wildcats lack through the the air, they make up for on the ground. Justin Jackson is the lead back for Northwestern with 731 yards and only one score. Jackson has four 100-yard games this season, so he can be the spark for this offense if given the opportunity. Along with Jackson, quarterback Clayton Thorson has the ability to beat teams with his legs, which has been trouble for Penn State this season. The key on defense will be stopping the run with a QB spy and a good effort by the front seven.
This may be the biggest game of the season for Penn State, as it could set the tone for the rest of the season. The Nittany Lions will need a collective effort on both sides of the ball to get the win in Evanston on Saturday.

Sara Civian (season record 2-1): Northwestern wins, Penn State loses

Sorry, but I’m the sports staff’s resident lukewarm take-haver. As much as I’d love to see Penn State beat Northwestern for its first victory against a ranked team in the Franklin Era, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Last week’s steamroll over Illinois showcased a Penn State offense (led by Christian Hackenberg) I forgot existed. Was that because Illinois’ defensive effort was lackluster at best? Partially. I think Hackenberg did gain much-needed confidence that will carry over to this weekend, but that’s not enough to pull off a win.
Featuring enigma linebacker Anthony Walker, Northwestern’s defense might be too aggressive no matter how much Penn State’s offense seemed to improve last weekend. I’m starting to doubt myself mid-prediction, because I just remembered how well Hackenberg used the deep ball last weekend. Honestly, predictions make me break out in hives because I know almost anything could happen. That’s why I love this game. That’s why I watch this game.
Honestly? The Wildcats are last in the Big Ten in scoring. Penn State’s defense will thwart them. Screw it. If Penn State weapons like “Saquon Jumpman” Barkley show up, if John Donovan makes less-than-horrendous calls, if Christian Hackenberg remembers how good he is, the Nittany Lions will squeeze out a win. Go team.
What’s your predictions? Tell us in the comments below.

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