Barkley will need some room to maneuver
Five things to look for as Penn State plays what figures to be a tough road game against a Northwestern team that could pose some problems on both sides of the ball.
No. 1: Ready to run
The Nittany Lions have to start showing a consistent running game, which they will need after next week’s bye with Michigan and Ohio State looming.
Northwestern’s defense had a solid day against the run last week, holding Wisconsin to 109 yards rushing. The Badgers also were held to a total of 306 yards (197 passing) and only 13 first downs.
PSU has a fantastic running back in Saquon Barkley, but aside from the Iowa game, the offensive line just hasn’t done a good job of giving him room to run.
Between Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, the Lions need to find a way to move the ball effectively on the ground. Expecting to beat Michigan and Ohio State by throwing the ball a ton is probably not a good idea, and with this being the last game before those huge challenges, PSU could use a confidence boost with a big ground game.
No. 2: TOP it off
Time of possession is not always a great indicator of what happens in a game, especially when you have an offense that can score quickly, like PSU.
But because of that last fact, look for Northwestern to try and employ a clock-eating strategy, running the ball, throwing quick hitters and slowly moving down the field. The Wildcats want to keep the Lions’ offense on the sideline, so they’ll have to convert a high percentage of third downs and be efficient in every way.
They’ll also have to score touchdowns. Moving the chains and eating clock only go so far, and if you’re having to settle for a bunch of field goals, that’s not going to beat Penn State.
No. 3: Tight-en up
Will tight end Mike Gesicki be able to play, or play at a high level, after suffering what appeared to be some type of rib injury last week? If he can’t, will the Lions be able to get offensive production from backups Jonathan Holland or Tom Pancoast?
If those backups don’t make many catches, perhaps they can help out in the running game by blocking effectively, which isn’t exactly Gesicki’s strength.
Gesicki is a special tight end when it comes to catching the ball, and if he can’t go, Northwestern’s defense would be getting a big break.
No. 4: Get pumped
This is a dangerous game in so many ways. Penn State has a target on its back as the No. 4 team in the country and is going to get everybody’s best shot. Northwestern is a good enough team to stay close and maybe even pull off the upset.
It’s also an early start, on the road, in a stadium where there won’t be a great atmosphere. Road teams often have a tough time getting motivated in these circumstances, so it will be up to the Lions to find their own motivation.
A fast start would help that in a big way. But as we all know, Penn State has long had issues with starting slowly on the road.
No. 5: Players
PSU: It’s Barkley, plain and simple. I haven’t wanted to just pick him every week, but in this case, he needs to have a big day running and/or catching the ball against a defense that will be fully geared up to try and stop him.
Northwestern: QB Clayton Thorson is an NFL prospect who’s smart — duh, he goes to Northwestern — and has a unique set of skills in a diverse offense. The Wildcats will have to run the ball well with Justin Jackson, but Thorson is an accurate passer, and if he’s hitting his targets, Northwestern will move the ball well.
Prediction: Penn State 33, Northwestern 23.