Saturday, November 7, 2015
@NW (Ryan Field)
James Franklin has never defeated Northwestern as a head coach, either at Vanderbilt or Penn State. He hopes to break a two-game losing streak against the Wildcats on Saturday, and his best chance to do that may be with a hefty dose of Saquon Barkley. Both of Northwestern's losses this season have come in games where they surrendered 200+ yards on the ground. On average, they have been giving up 145.5 yards per game, holding opponents to 3.97 yards per carry. Saquon Barkley has been averaging 6.63 yards per carry, meaning that if he is given 30 touches, he could break 200 yards himself. I don't expect Franklin to hand the ball off quite that often, at least to a single player. Barkley hasn't had more than 26 carries in a game this season, and actually has a much higher yards-per-carry in games where his touches are significantly lower. Look for Franklin to get Barkley involved early, then turn the reigns over to Hackenberg.
Adam Breneman (TE)-Questionable for Saturday
Kyle Carter (TE)-Out indefinitely
Adam DePietro (O-Line)-Out for the rest of the season w/knee injury
C.J. Robbins (D-Line)-Questionable for Saturday
Matthew Harris (CB)-Upgraded to probable for Saturday
Penn State Defense vs. Clayton Thorson
Penn State's defense has been great so far this season, except when facing mobile quarterbacks. J.T. Barrett gave Shoop's squad fits in week seven, as did Perry Hills of Maryland in week eight. They could have their hands full again, as Clayton Thorson is the second leading rusher on the Northwestern team. He has amassed 287 yards and 5 touchdowns so far on 8 carries per game and 4.6 yards per carry. Expect a heavy dose of Justin Jackson (RB) on Saturday, but it is the added threat of a mobile quarterback that could crack the Nittany Lions defense.
Saquon Barkley vs. Northwestern Defense
As we mentioned previously, this will be a matchup to watch. Barkley has been picking up a lot of "chunk" plays, while Northwestern has a disciplined defense that is good at preventing them. If Barkley can break off some big runs on a moderate workload, James Franklin could really open up the offense by calling deep passes for Godwin, Lewis, and Hamilton. I respect the tenacity of a Fitzgerald-coached defense, but I think Barkley's talent may be too much for them to contain.
James Franklin vs. Himself
James Franklin will need to coach this team the way he did against Illinois to win at Ryan Field. That means cutting loose, letting Hackenberg call some of his own shots, and working some trick plays and direct snaps to Barkley into the mix. Under Paterno, you could always count on one or two trick plays per game, usually on the opening drive of each half. Under Franklin/Donovan this season, there has been little to get excited about. Hopefully last week's greatly improved play calling and increased autonomy for Hackenberg will carry over. Hack is at his best when he is the general on the field, and this offense is its best when the ball is being put into the most explosive playmakers' hands. Last week showed a solid blue print for success; only time will tell whether Franklin will follow it or revert to getting in his own way.
Christian Hackenberg vs. the Haters
Saturday's game is an opportunity for Christian Hackenberg to continue his evolution as a quarterback and as a draft prospect. Already the PSU leader in career passing yards, completions, and total touchdowns, he is closing on the career passing touchdowns record as well. A close look at his numbers reveals that over the past six games, he has been even better than he was under O'Brien. If his improvement continues, you can expect the buzz to pick back up around him. I think he would still be best served by a fourth year of college ball, but if he gets a high draft grade it would be hard to fault him for leaving. Still, imagining Hackenberg back under center with Hamilton, Godwin, Bell, and Saquon Barkley in 2016... That is the type of team that could push for a Big Ten Championship, and I think that Hackenberg is the type of kid who cares about those things.
1. Barkley Cracks 150 yards
I think Barkley will be back to 100% after tweaking his ankle earlier this season. He has looked better and better in each game since his return. I believe this is the week that he really turns it up and breaks some long runs. Against Illinois he had a few that could have gone for much longer, but he was tripped up or tackled by the final defender. I think this week the breaks will go his way and he will have huge afternoon.
2. Hackenberg Throws 2 touchdowns, first pick since September 19th
Hackenberg is currently on his longest streak without an interception, and hasn't tossed a pick in 164 passes and six games. I think he will have a good game against Northwestern, but I also believe that streaks like that can't last forever. I predict that he will give up his first interception since Rutgers, but also throw for over 250 yards and 2 touchdowns.
3. Nassib Breaks PSU Sack Record
All he needs is a half-sack to tie and a full sack to break it. I don't see any reason why November 7 should be the day that Nassib can't find the quarterback.
Score Prediction: Penn State 24, Northwestern 20
The Wildcats are the 2.5 point favorites in this game, but I'm calling it for Penn State. PSU has a rough final stretch, playing NW, UM (16), and MSU (6) to close out the season. I like to think that the Penn State offense has finally found its groove after scoring 70 points in its last two games. With a strong defense, I believe that PSU will win at least one of those three games. Northwestern is certainly the weakest of the three, so I am calling the slight upset by picking Penn State.
Since I predicted 2 touchdowns for Hackenberg, that leaves 1 for Saquon Barkley and a field goal for Davis (Julius has GOT to be benched, right?)
I expect that Northwestern will have some success on the ground, and Jackson and Thorston each score a touchdown. Add on two field goals as Northwestern is able to eat up ground but the PSU defense limits big plays and stops drives short of the end zone.