Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has never lost to Penn State head coach James Franklin, but Fitzgerald’s Wildcats have never had to go up against a Penn State team this highly ranked with a potential Heisman Trophy front-runner leading the charge.
This week, Northwestern will look to score a major upset in Big Ten play as it hosts the defending Big Ten champions in Evanston. The Wildcats gave Wisconsin a good run for a half but were unable to keep up with the Badgers a week ago. A similar fate could end up being witnessed this week as the Nittany Lions have shown they can go through some ruts in a game and still pull away for a sizable victory. Will Northwestern be able to rebound from a tough loss last week to keep up the pace against Penn State?
Penn State at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Penn State -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1.Can Northwestern contain Saquon Barkley?
Barkley may not have had a dominant afternoon running the football against Indiana last week, but the Heisman Trophy candidate proved why he is so dangerous by returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and recording his first career touchdown pass as well. In all, Barkley still ended his day with more than 200 all-purpose yards, proving he can cause problems in a variety of ways. Barkley has 1,218 all-purpose yards this season, 500 more than the Big Ten’s next player in that category (Iowa RB Akrum Wadley). For the conference's 11th-ranked defense, this could be a matchup nightmare for the Wildcats.
2.Mismatch in the trenches
Northwestern will have to play by far its best game on the line of scrimmage the Wildcats have all season to stand any chance against Penn State. Northwestern’s offensive line has been dominated by teams like Duke and Wisconsin, and Penn State brings an aggressive defensive front to the game this weekend. The Nittany Lions' offensive line has had some issues this season, but it has yet to hurt them. Don’t count on the Wildcats managing to be the team to finally cost Penn State at the line of scrimmage this week.
3. Northwestern and the Wisconsin "Body Blow Theory"
You may have heard about the "Body Blow Theory" with regard to teams like Alabama or Stanford, but could there be one for Wisconsin’s opponents too? Last year saw Wisconsin opponents go 3-8 the week following a game against the Badgers, including Ohio State’s only loss in the regular season (at Penn State), Nebraska being demolished by the Buckeyes, and Iowa getting blown out (by Penn State). Northwestern picked up one of those wins, although it came at the expense of a struggling Purdue program. Wisconsin’s opponents this season are 1-2 the week after playing the Badgers. Northwestern, of course, is coming off a road game in Madison last week.
Northwestern entered the season as a dark horse candidate in the Big Ten West Division but so far the results have been far from what some anticipated. Northwestern’s offense has struggled despite having running back Justin Jackson, and the Wildcats likely are far away from having enough offensive firepower to keep up with Penn State. Even if Penn State doesn’t have tight end Mike Gesicki available, the Nittany Lions should have enough reasons to feel confident about this week’s trip to Evanston and looks to be heading into a bye week with a 6-0 record before the make-or-break stretch of their season gets started.
Prediction: Penn State 38, Northwestern 13
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.