Difficult stretch starts for Penn State at Northwestern
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Penn State made it look easy in a shutout win last week. Now, things are about to get tougher - much tougher.
The Nittany Lions eye their third straight victory as they begin a difficult three-game stretch, starting with Saturday's visit to Northwestern.
A win over the Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) is no sure thing, and the schedule doesn't get any easier the rest of the way. Penn State (7-2, 4-1) has a bye next week before No. 16 Michigan visits Happy Valley, and a trip to No. 6 Michigan State closes out the schedule. But first up is a trip to Northwestern.
''It's a different environment than a lot of the Big Ten venues that we go to,'' coach James Franklin said. ''It's an hour earlier than we normally play. The game is going to come fast. What you've got to be careful of is a lot of times when you're playing on the road in that type of environment and you're playing at that time in the day, if you look, a lot of people have opened up slow. They've sleepwalked through the first quarter.''
The Nittany Lions sure seemed to be locked in during last week's 39-0 win over Illinois, their first shutout since 2013 and their first against a Big Ten team since 2009.
Northwestern has little in common with the Illini. They play a different style on offense than the pocket-heavy, vertical passing approach used by Illinois. They rely on quarterback Clayton Thorson's legs as well as his arm when he's not handing off to Justin Jackson.
Northwestern rebounded from blowout losses to Michigan and Michigan State with 30-28 win at Nebraska two weeks ago. The Wildcats are coming off a bye.
''They're a great football team,'' Northwestern superback Dan Vitale said of Penn State. ''You saw what they did last weekend. I think the game's gonna be huge up front on both sides.''
Hackenberg comes in on quite a roll for Penn State. He has gone 164 pass attempts without an interception and has been particularly good his last six games. Hackenberg has thrown for 1,415 yards and has thrown for at least 250 in four of those games. He has thrown for 12 touchdowns, run for two and caught one TD pass, and he has not thrown an interception in that span.
ON THE RUN
No team in the nation has as many sacks as Penn State (36) and no individual has as many as the Nittany Lions' Carl Nassib (14 1/2). That means Thorson's composure could be tested. His mobility could also pose some problems for a sack-happy defense. Second on the team with 297 yards rushing, the freshman went off for a career-high 126 and ran for a touchdown against Nebraska.
''Clayton's a quarterback with a lot of composure,'' receiver Austin Carr said. ''I think that a lot of people picked up on that. That kind of spreads out throughout the offense.''
Northwestern defensive end Dean Lowry had quite a game at Nebraska, with a career-high 10 tackles and a school-record six for loss. The six tackles in the backfield were the most by any player in the country this season and the sixth-best total in Big Ten history.
With a 1-2 record, Penn State has not exactly been living large on the road. The lone win was against struggling Maryland by one two weeks ago. The other two games were a season-opening 27-10 loss at now-No. 23 Temple and a 38-10 loss at top-ranked Ohio State last month. Northwestern is 4-1 at home.
ON SECOND(ARY) THOUGHT
Cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Godwin Igwebuike have been productive for Northwestern. So it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats defend Chris Godwin, the Nittany Lions' leading receiver at 78.2 yards per game. VanHoose returned his first interception of the season 72 yards for his first career touchdown at Nebraska. Igwebuike is second on the team in tackles with 48.