What you need to know: No. 4 Penn State at Northwestern
UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.
Game details: at Northwestern, noon kickoff Eastern Time (11 a.m. local), broadcast on ABC.
Records: Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten), Northwestern (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten)
Venue: Ryan Field, capacity of 47,130.
Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): high of 75 degrees; mostly cloudy and breezy with a touch of rain.
Overview: An 11 a.m. (local time) kick in a stadium that’s hosted a combined 67,000 fans in two games this season — 33,000 and change in each contest, as Northwestern claimed wins over Nevada (31-20) and Bowling Green (49-7). The Wildcats were within a touchdown of Wisconsin late last week in Madison, and I’m not sure Northwestern is a team that can compete every week. The Cats can be prone to a letdown, evident by their 41-17 loss to Duke last month. After Saturday, the Nittany Lions have their bye before facing the most important three-game stretch of the season: They host Michigan on Oct. 21, and then visit Ohio State and Michigan State in ensuing weeks. But first, Northwestern, Northwestern, Northwestern.
The line: Penn State –14.
All-time series: Penn State leads 13-5, starting in 1993.
Last time they met (2015): Northwestern picked up a 23-21 win in Evanston.
Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions are ready right away. It’s kind of that simple. Play sharp early, and the rest should take care of itself. And considering that the Nittany Lions are the only team in FBS this season to not allow a point in the first quarter — they’ve outscored opponents 73-0 in the opening frame — that shouldn’t be a problem.
Northwestern wins (maybe) if: The Wildcats are within single digits entering the fourth quarter. It’s difficult to beat Penn State, yet more so when falling behind, as many teams have done. Even though Indiana scored 14 straight last week, the game was essentially over when the Lions led 28-0 after the first quarter. The Cats have to find a way to contain the Lions and keep the score within reach the entire time.
Count on: Northwestern kicking the ball away from Saquon Barkley. After the standout running back returned last week’s opening kick for a touchdown against Indiana, it’ll be interesting to see how aggressive (or not) opposing teams are when kicking to the Lions. For now, we’re guessing they’ll stay away.
Keep an eye on: the Lions’ offensive line. For as many highlights as Barkley’s been piling up, the running game has struggled, which James Franklin has acknowledged at various points this season. Northwestern has been allowing an average of 145 rushing yards a game, so this is a good week for Penn State to show improvement.
Trivia tidbit: Penn State’s offense has (rightly) received lots of attention, though the Nittany Lions’ defense has been just as impressive. The Lions are permitting only 9.4 points per game, good for third in FBS.
Saquon Barkley record watch: After gaining 56 rushing yards last week, Barkley remains seventh all-time at Penn State with 3,146 yards.
*Season record: 5-0
*Season record against the spread: 2-3
Prediction: Penn State 42, Northwestern 21
*HappyValley season predictions