In November 2010, after jumping out to an early 21-point lead against Penn State, Northwestern allowed the Nittany Lions to score 35 unanswered points (28 in the second half) and cruise to victory. Second half collapses have been characteristic of the Wildcats in recent years, and have been a factor in Northwestern’s struggles over the past month. Here are some key matchups that will help determine if the ‘Cats can right their sinking ship and take a step back toward bowl eligibility.
Northwestern offensive line vs. Penn State DTs Devon Still and Jordan Hill
Penn State enters Saturday’s game with the nation’s sixth-best defense in both scoring and yardage allowed, and Still and Hill are two big reasons why. The two have terrorized opposing interior lines all season, combining for 15 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks this year; they have helped Penn State to hold five of seven opponents under 100 yards rushing. Devon Still has been particularly effective, accounting for 10 tackles for loss and putting himself in the conversation for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The two tackles will be going up against a very experienced offensive line that came into the season with the second-most combined starts in the nation. Guards Ben Burkett and Brian Mulroe and center Brandon Vitabile will likely be responsible for handling Penn State’s monsters up the middle. Keeping these two out of the backfield will be key if the ‘Cats want to get Kain Colter and Treyvon Green going in the run game.
Penn State RB Silas Redd vs. Northwestern LB David Nwabuisi
Redd has been one of the few bright spots for the struggling Lions’ offense, with four 100-yard games this season and more than 400 rushing yards in his three games against Big Ten opponents. With the Lions pass game struggling – PSU has been shuffling two quarterbacks throughout the season – and top receiver Derek Moye expected to miss Saturday’s game, Redd will likely receive plenty of carries.
It will be up to Nwabuisi to fill gaps and make solid tackles to keep Redd’s gains to a minimum. He and the other linebackers have struggled recently, with Iowa and Michigan ripping the Wildcats on the ground for 334 combined yards the past two weeks.
Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert vs. Penn State CB D’Anton Lynn
Lynn will be playing in just his second game since a concussion sidelined him in late September against Eastern Michigan. Though he will have a strong defensive unit around him, Lynn will have to shake off the rust quickly, as he will be responsible for slowing down one of the Big Ten’s hottest receivers.
Ebert tied his career-high in receptions two weeks ago with 11 before setting a new career-high with 13 catches last week against Iowa’s two NFL-quality cornerbacks. He also continued to shine as Dan Persa’s go-to third down target, with eight of his catches converting third downs. Still, Ebert’s 24 catches the past two weeks have gone for just 193 yards, an average of eight yards per reception. For Northwestern to take down Penn State’s stingy defense, Ebert will have to increase his yardage and get behind the Penn State defensive backs.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald vs. Northwestern QBs Dan Persa and Kain Colter
It’s not a matchup between Penn State and Northwestern, but this matchup may affect the ‘Cats more than any other. Since Persa returned from injury three weeks ago, the Wildcats have utilized Colter a number of times as a wide receiver with decent effectiveness. Last week Colter made a spectacular catch against Iowa, fully extending and snagging the ball with his fingertips as he dove to the ground. But coach Pat Fitzgerald’s decision to use Colter occasionally at quarterback has at times shaken the rhythm of the ‘Cats offense. Though Colter’s ability to run the option has been incredibly effective for Northwestern, putting a heavier emphasis on the run game has at times put Persa in bad third down situations.
One possible solution could be keeping Persa at quarterback and direct snapping or handing off to Coulter in the backfield. Direct snapping would still allow Colter to run the option and use his athleticism. As a bonus, lining Colter up in the backfield could make him a scary matchup as a receiver, forcing a linebacker to cover him rather than a corner or a safety.
If Fitzgerald can find a proper balance while still utilizing his two quarterbacks’ abilities, the ‘Cats may be able to stop their skid with a big win over a ranked opponent.