PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (5-0)
at NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (2-2)
Ryan Field – Evanston, IL
Kickoff: Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET
Line: Penn State -14.5, Total: 53
#4 Penn State looks to survive and advance on the road in Evanston.
While undefeated and outscoring opponents by over 32 points per game on the season, Penn State's 5-0 record (4-1 ATS) hasn't come without drama. Two weeks ago in Iowa City, the Nittany Lions opened Big Ten play on the road against Iowa and needed a literal last-second touchdown pass to escape with a 21-19 victory over the Hawkeyes (IOWA +12.5). It was a harrowing reminder for a preseason College Football Playoff favorite that every week in the Big Ten is a test (Rutgers excepted), especially on the road. After an easy 45-14 home win over Indiana this past week (PSU -20), Penn State is traveling once again, this time to Chicago for a showdown with Northwestern. The Wildcats are 2-2 (2-2 ATS), and yet to really notch a victory of note. An embarrassing 41-17 loss at Duke as two-point favorites knocked them off of most's radar. Over the last 10 seasons, teams averaging between 3.0 and 3.5 yards per carry (NW) are 41-85 ATS against conference opponents that are allowing between 3.0 and 3.5 yards per rush. Over the same time frame, road favorites averaging over 4.8 yards per carry (PSU) are 60-24 ATS against conference opponents averaging between 3.0 and 3.5 yards.
Penn State entered the season with two potential Heisman candidates, and one has emerged as perhaps the consensus favorite to this point around the nation. RB Saquon Barkley (86 carries, 574 yards, 4 TD; 27 catches, 386 yards, 2 TD) has drawn in fawning praise from all corners of the college football world, with several analysts, coaches and former players saying that he may be literally the best player they have ever seen. Even when opposing teams stack the box to slow his rushing totals, as Indiana did in holding him to 56 yards on 20 carries, he finds ways to dominate. He returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, caught four passes for 51 yards and even threw for a touchdown on a pitch-pass play. He had a performance that was nothing short of heroic a week earlier against Iowa, running for 211 yards and gaining 94 more through the air. He leads the team in receptions and receiving yards from QB Trace McSorley (65.6 CMP%, 1,352 yards, 12 TD, 4 INT), the Nittany Lions' other preseason Heisman candidate. McSorley wasn't brilliant against Indiana, but completed 23 of 36 passes for 315 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a game that was never in doubt. He will, however, need to improve on the types of games he's had against Iowa and Indiana by the time Penn State plays Michigan and Ohio State at the end of this month. WR DaeSean Hamilton (20 catches, 331 yards, 4 TDs) had a career game against Indiana with nine catches for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
Northwestern actually held the lead at halftime against Wisconsin, scoring a second quarter touchdown to go up 10-7 heading into the break. The Wildcats surrendered 26 second half points, though, and their offense couldn't quite keep pace. While perhaps not quite a moral victory, it was a promising road performance that should put the Duke disaster fully in the rear view mirror. QB Clayton Thorson (64.1 CMP%, 1,061 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs) attempted a season-high 45 passes against the rugged Wisconsin defense, completing 29 of them for 219 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He faced down pressure all day, as his offensive line allowed him to be taken down for eight bruising sacks on the afternoon. If the line can't improve in pass protection, it's safe to say the Wildcats will have little to no shot against PSU. Six Northwestern receivers caught at least three passes against the Badgers, with WR Flynn Nagel (15 catches, 149 yards) leading the way with five grabs for 52 yards. Other frequent targets in the passing game are WR Bennett Skowronek (17 catches, 256 yards, 2 TDs), TE Garrett Dickerson (18 catches, 214 yards, TD) and freshman big-play threat WR Riley Lees (8 catches, 122 yards, 2 TDs). So is RB Justin Jackson (64 carries, 273 yards, 4 TDs; 13 catches, 103 yards), who entered the year alongside Barkley on preseason All-Big Ten lists. As of now, though, Jackson ranks outside the conference's top-10 rushing leaders. Part of that is the fact that the Wildcats have only played four games, but the offense will likely benefit by emphasizing ball control and giving Jackson plenty of carries going forward, especially against high-powered teams like PSU.