Northwestern captured their sixth win of the season last Saturday against Indiana, earning bowl eligibility for a fourth consecutive season. As they head to Penn State this week, another potential milestone victory will have the whole country turning their attention to Happy Valley. With a victory, Penn State’s legendary coach Joe Paterno will have earned 400 wins over his 45 years with the Nittany Lions.
Although JoePa has tried to downplay this accomplishment, saying that anyone who has coached as long as him is bound to get some wins, he has averaged almost nine wins a season in his tenure. And remember, schools did not always play 12-game seasons. To add a little Northwestern context, if Fitz continues at the winning pace of his first three seasons, he’ll be 90 by the time he gets to 400.
OK, enough math, let’s breakdown this weekend’s match-up.
Northwestern Offense vs. Penn State Defense
The big story of the week is the status of Dan Persa’s head. The Northwestern quarterback was concussed in Bloomington, but by all reports he should be ready to go on Saturday. Whether or not he will have any injury symptoms remains to be seen. However, Penn State is tied for last in the Big Ten in sacks so who knows how much Persa will have to scramble out of trouble this week.
If Persa is still struggling, it will be interesting to see if running back Mike Trumpy can repeat his masterful performance from a week ago. The Trumpster became the first Northwestern back to gain over 100 yards on the ground since Tyrell Sutton in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. Trumpy has been the spark in the backfield the Wildcats have needed and can take some of the load off of Persa.
But the big stat for Saturday concerns field position and Northwestern’s ability to move the ball. The Nittany Lions have the worst red zone defense in the Big Ten. In fact, they have yet to stop a team once they are past the 20. If that trend continues, Northwestern could put some serious points on the board and spoil JoePa’s big evening.
Northwestern Defense vs. Penn State Offense
As poor as Penn State has been in the red zone on defense, they have been just as inefficient on offense. They have only been inside the opponent’s 20-yard line 29 times, scoring only 13 touchdowns. This plays right into the Wildcats’ hands, as they are perfectly content to let teams rack up yards between the twenties, as long as they can keep them from putting six on the board.
It remains to be seen whom Penn State will start as quarterback on Saturday. Like Persa, true freshman Rob Bolden was out last week against Michigan with a concussion and redshirt sophomore Matthew McGloin played well in his place, leading the Nittany Lions to a 41-31 win over the Wolverines. Bolden has struggled in his first year, throwing five touchdowns to seven interceptions, so the coaching staff may not be ready to throw him back on the field, no matter what his health situation is.
The Penn State running attack is of some concern for the ‘Cats, as senior running back Evan Royster appears to be back on track, gaining 150 rushing yards against Michigan. In each of Penn State’s three losses, Royster has had 11 or fewer carries, so if Northwestern can keep the ball out of his hands and force the Nittany Lions to go to the air, they will be in prime position to win.
Since his disastrous Purdue game, Stefan Demos has been back on track. He has not missed a kick in the past two games (4-4 on field goals and 5-5 on PATs) and may be considered dependable once again (knock on wood). Penn State also has a dependable kicker in senior Collin Wagner, but you never know in this game.
It will be interesting to see if Wildcat freshman Venric Mark, who has taken over as Northwestern’s main kick and punt returner, can translate his blazing speed into points on Saturday. Penn State has the best kickoff coverage in the Big Ten, so if Mark is looking to turn some heads, there is no time better than the present.
Northwestern will be fighting for their seventh win on Saturday, all while trying to avoid being a footnote in the record books. Being on the losing side of Joe Paterno’s 400th win really does not sound that bad. Then again, neither does a sharp stick to the eye. Penn State goes on the road for the next two weeks so the pressure will be on them to get this win. I believe they will, but not without a fight. Penn State 23, Northwestern 21.