NU: Blitz the Wildcats

Gerald Hodges

Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide the ultimate preview for the Nittany Lions' Homecoming outing (and the rest of the college football weekend). Get the lowdown on the keys to the game and much more right here.

Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's battle against Northwestern.

The Blitz was one of the most popular features at the old PSU Playbook, the grass-roots site which was a big part of the entities that united to create FightOnState.com back in 2004. Though the name of the site changed, we kept right on blitzing.

The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.

Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.

As an aside, in keeping up with the times, we are converting The Blitz from a pdf format to an online story.


KICKING OFF

ND: A huge road win against the limping Illini is just what the Lions need to build confidence leading into the Homecoming matchup with the unbeaten Wildcats. Northwestern is the lowest ranked unbeaten team from an AQ conference so it is looking for a signature win to push its ranking northbound. Meanwhile, the Lions are looking to prove to the nation that they are not the team that lost to Virginia and Ohio, but are the team that dominated the last three opponents.

MH: The Illinois win was huge in terms of confidence and simple momentum. Northwestern is 5-0, but keep in mind its opponents are a combined 5-11 and none of the five teams they have faced currently has a winning record. That is not to say the Wildcats won't be tough — they will be, particularly since they have something to prove. And there is little doubt Pat Fitzgerald will have his squad ready.


DIRTY DETAILS

Who: No. 24 Northwestern at Penn State

When: Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 12:00 p.m. ET, 9:00 a.m. PT

Where: Beaver Stadium at University Park, PA

Series: Penn State leads 12-3

TV: ESPN

Line: Penn State -3


OTHER BIG GAMES

ND: Will the real SEC team from the East please stand up! South Carolina will face off against Georgia. This game is huge for the SEC and we'll find out which team is going to have the inside track to the East title. I really like Connor Shaw and South Carolina. The Gamecocks have an excellent defense, a great running game and an efficient passing game. Georgia has a dynamic offense, but when you look at how it struggled on defense last week, you have to question its ability to generate a stop. I like Steve Spurrier to keep pushing this Gamecock team toward a BCS bowl game.

MH: No. 4 LSU visits No. 10 Florida for a major showdown in The Swamp. This game will go a long way to helping to see how the SEC takes shape. Also, No. 8 West Virginia heads to No. 11 Texas in an intriguing matchup that has only been played once (in 1956). Texas lost that game, 7-6.


UPSET SPECIAL

ND: Mark, I tell ya, I am not drinking the Kool-Aid on LSU. After giving up points to Towson and looking less than impressive against Auburn, I think the Tigers are in danger to lose to the Gators this weekend in Gainesville. I like the Gators in this one and I like them BIG.

MH: My upset special is in the Big Ten. I realize Nebraska has to go to the Horseshoe, but I think the No. 21 Huskers have the horses to knock off No. 12 Ohio State. It should be a fun battle of runnin' QBs.


PSU'S PLAYBOOK

ND: Despite some issues with accuracy, the offense really hit its groove last week by running the ball an astonishing 52 times with significant success. Zach Zwinak has performed very well in his role as TB. But, more importantly, the offensive line with Donovan Smith is really starting to gel and, for the first time this season, was able to regularly get to the second level. Clearly, Penn State is settling into being a balanced offense with a group of backs who can pound the rock and who are strong after contact. The return of Bill Belton does give the Lions a little burst and a homerun threat that is not otherwise present. I'd like to see the Lions get Belton into the passing attack. Defensively, the Lions got the Illini out of rhythm and completely eliminated their ability to run the ball. This week, the Lions will have to do the same.

Michael Mauti, Mike Hull, DaQuan Jones and Jordan Hill have to come up with a big game. But Gerald Hodges, Deion Barnes and Sean Stanley are going to be very key to set the edge against the rushing attack of the Wildcats. The LBs are going to have to make their reads quickly because they will be needed in coverage when Trevor Siemian throws the ball. Mark, the key for this defense is going to be balance and coverage. If it takes too many risks, it will give up yards. We'll see if Ted Roof goes aggressive or if he forces Northwestern to find a way to beat great coverage.

MH: Penn State had an interesting game on Saturday. First, it came out fast and hard, jumping on a 14-0 lead. Then the offense deflated and Matt McGloin looked to be a shell of himself for the remainder of the first half. Then the offense woke up and pounded the ball to a 35-7 win. McGloin ended up having solid numbers, but the offensive line and running game impressed me. Penn State has shown it has a stable of backs that can grind up yardage, but it was particularly great to see Zwinak get the nod and roll up 100 yards and two touchdowns. Personally, I think PSU should look to him early and often against Northwestern. The Wildcat defense seems to be bi-polar. It clamped down against Vanderbilt, Boston College and South Dakota, giving up an average of 11 points per game. However, against Syracuse and Indiana, it coughed up an average of 35 points per game. Bill O'Brien will have to spread the ball around and keep the Wildcat front guessing.

Defensively, Roof must pick up where he left off against Illinois. The Lions addressed the early third-down issues and allowed Illinois to convert only four of 15 third-down attempts last week. Like you said, Nirav, the defensive front has to apply pressure, but stick with calculated risks. I like the role PSU has had with Hodges in keeping tabs on quarterbacks. I suspect we'll continue to see this. Siemian is not a huge threat to run. So getting pressure on the pocket will be key. The secondary has to be on its game in this one since Siemian will move the ball around and look to open things up with a big toss.


SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE

ND: It's not usual to see a QB lead a team in rushing nowadays. But it is unusual to see a QB be a major contributor in rushing but another QB lead the team in passing. That's exactly what's going on at Northwestern. Kain Colter will line up at QB, but that's mainly in read-option situations. In those situations, he will take off running or will hand off to Venric Mark, who is a junior RB who has a ton of shake. Meanwhile Siemian is more of a pocket passer who is able to deliver the football very efficiently to his WRs, which includes Colter. The Wildcats are truly a team that ensures that their best players are on the field at all times.

Defensively, the Wildcats don't do anything fancy. They are a straight-forward 4-3 defense that tries to put their star LB, Chi Chi Ariguzo in a position to make plays. He leads the team in tackles, INTs and TFLs. He is built much like Hodges — a very fast, aggressive LB who has excellent coverage skills.

One cannot overlook the ability of Mark on punt returns. I am sure O'Brien has focused on this all week in practice with Mark ranked second in the nation with an astonishing 30.6-yard return average. Though he only has six returns this year, he does have a TD to his name.

MH: The way Northwestern swaps its quarterbacks is a clear indicator of what it is going to run. But that means Penn State has to play aggressive yet disciplined defense. The Lions will have to shift from their option coverage to their pass coverage and stick with their roles in each. Tony Jones and Demetrius Fields give Siemian some nice targets to go to through the air.

Defensively, as you said, Nirav, Northwestern is a straight-ahead defense. The Wildcats aren't flashy, but they have been playing fast and hard. Penn State's offense plays well to this, but it has to come out primed for this game. Northwestern will take advantage of the Lions going flat for periods. McGloin will have to play smart, continue to protect the ball and get his tight ends involved in the pass attack. Northwestern has shown it will give up points, but the key is keeping the Wildcats guessing.


MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY

ND: This game is going to come down to how well the Lions pressure Siemian and its ability to get him off the field. I think it's going to be very interesting to watch the secondary adjust and adapt to what Siemian throws at it. This is going to be a very intriguing matchup to watch.

MH: I think McGloin against the Northwestern defensive front could be fun to watch. Again, the Wildcats don't get too creative, but I think we could see a bit of variety in their blitzes that will have to keep McGloin on his toes.


KEYS TO THE GAME

ND: The Lions have not faced an attack like Wildcats since they faced Ohio on opening day. Now we're going to see how well the Lions convert on third down and how well they stop the Wildcats on third down. I think that's going to be the key to this game.

MH: The Lions need to have a balanced attack to keep the Northwestern defense on edge. McGloin spreading the ball around and a heavy dose of Zwinak or Michael Zordich to grind the defensive front down should pay dividends.


PREDICTIONS

ND: I think the Lion offense has really hit a great groove and the Wildcat defense will struggle with the physical style of play. Meanwhile, I think the Lion defense is going to struggle with the passing attack and wide-open offense of the Wildcats. But, I like Adrian Amos making a play on defense to help Penn State secure a win.

Penn State 28, Northwestern 27

MH: I think Penn State has found its identity on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats will find success, but PSU will have to find ways to apply pressure and create opportunities.

Penn State 27, Northwestern 20


Until next time,

Fight On State!

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