- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State is a double-digit favorite over Northwestern but, hey, at least Saturday’s noon game at Beaver Stadium should be more entertaining than last Saturday's UMass slaughter.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on:
1. Can Penn State’s success with the run-game continue? Northwestern hasn’t had a lot of team success since … well … last September. But it does have a deceptively good run defense. The Wildcats have allowed just 3.08 yards per rush this season, and their worst performance came when they allowed four yards a rush against Northern Illinois. Not too bad, considering the Huskies ran the ball 55 times.
Sure, Penn State had success last week – but its opponent was UMass. That kind of production needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering the Minutemen allow nearly 50 percent more yards per rush than Northwestern (4.57 yards compared to 3.08 yards). If Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak or Akeel Lynch can run against Northwestern, this offense really has become more balanced. But it seems premature to say the run game has already taken off. This game should act as a good measuring stick.
2. Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and his ankle. Siemian doesn’t have a severe injury, but there has still been a ripple impact from the setback he suffered against Northern Illinois. His arm strength has been noticeably lacking, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week that’s because he couldn’t push off that ankle. Siemian had enough problems before an injury complicated things, but last week against Western Illinois, he was just 15-of-25 for 117 yards. That’s not terrible, but against a team nicknamed the Leathernecks, he should’ve done much better. The Wildcats should struggle running the ball, so they’re going to have to rely on Siemian. If he can’t get the job done, the Northwestern offense is in real trouble.
3. Can Christian Hackenberg maintain his record pace? The sophomore quarterback is averaging 315.2 passing yards per game. At that rate, including a bowl game, he’s on pace for 4,098 yards. No Big Ten quarterback has ever crossed the 4,000-yard barrier; former Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter came the closest in 2006 with 3,985 yards. Hackenberg has a chance to break that Big Ten record this year, but he needs to rack up yards against teams like Northwestern to have a shot. The Wildcats have the No. 91 passing defense in the nation.
4. Anthony Zettel vs. Northwestern OL. Zettel didn't record any tackle stats last week, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t contribute. His penetration on one play allowed Brandon Bell to record a big sack, and he could be in for a good day statistically on Saturday. Northwestern’s line hasn’t fared very well against its two FBS opponents.
Here’s what the Wildcats have allowed in those two games: 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks and four forced fumbles. And Northern Illinois and Cal aren’t exactly known for their defense; neither is ranked within the top 45 in total defense. Zettel’s speed could prove especially problematic Saturday, especially considering Siemian’s ankle.
430dAdam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett