Penn State is on the road again, and a couple weeks removed from a tight 21-19 win at Iowa, the Nittany Lions are hoping for a less stressful trip this go-around.
The No. 4 Nittany Lions are 14.5-point favorites over Northwestern, who are 7-0 against the spread and have won five games outright as double-digit underdogs since 2014. A fast start and a pick or two could help make covering a reality, but one particular Wildcat has the ability to cause Penn State some problems.
Here are five things to watch on Saturday:
From the get-go
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Everyone knows that Penn State was a second-half team in 2016. Fans, players, coaches — even the vendors on Curtin Road know it.
But so far in 2017, the Nittany Lions have been the best first-quarter team in the country. Really. Penn State has outscored opponents 73-0 in the first quarter this season. The Nittany Lions are the only FBS team to not yet allow an opening-period score.
A large contributor to that margin? Penn State’s 28 first-quarter points against Indiana on Saturday, the first time the Nittany Lions have achieved that feat since 2005.
Moreover, Penn State hasn’t allowed a first down on its five game-opening defensive series in 2017. The defense picked off Pitt, stripped and recovered a fumble against Indiana and forced punts against Akron, Georgia State and Iowa.
“We’ve been a great first quarter team this year,” James Franklin said. “That needs to continue on Saturday.”
Some worry that an earlier kickoff — 11 a.m. local Central time in Evanston — could present a problem. Teams changing time zones and playing an earlier game have come out flat before.
But Franklin isn’t buying that. He believes his Nittany Lions are prepared to come out firing like they have so far this season.
“No excuses. No excuses,” Franklin said. “We all know at 11 o’clock we’re kicking the ball off, so let’s be ready to play. Let’s not act like we didn’t know that was coming.”
Penn State hasn’t had an individual with more than three interceptions in a single season since Lydell Sargeant’s four in 2008 — but that could change this year.
Nittany Lion cornerbacks Grant Haley and Amani Oruwariye each have two interceptions through five games in 2017, and the possibility for another pick or two is there on Saturday.
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Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, who’s second in the conference with 265.7 passing yards per game, is prone to mistakes. The junior has five interceptions in four games. Four of those picks came against the only two competent opponents Northwestern’s faced: Duke and Wisconsin.
On Saturday, Haley and Oruwariye can take yet another step toward breaking that eight-season drought.
Speaking of interceptions, the Nittany Lions defense has been pretty darn good at generating turnovers as a unit.
Penn State boasts the third-best turnover margin in the country (plus-nine). Only South Florida (plus-11) and Alabama (plus-10) have better margins.
The Nittany Lions’ 14 takeaways (seven interceptions, seven fumble recoveries) is third-most nationally behind USF and Utah State.
“We’ve gotten off to a pretty good start there,” safety Nick Scott said of winning the turnover battle. “It’s something we’ve been emphasizing this past spring in camp that we have the athletes to do it. Having more of an influence on the game in terms of interceptions and forcing fumbles early on in the season.”
Meanwhile, Northwestern is 84th in the country with a turnover margin of minus-one.
Expect turnover margin to prove vital on Saturday.
Moving on up
Trace McSorley is five away from tying Christian Hackenberg’s program record for career touchdown passes.
Although he likely won’t knot it up at Northwestern — McSorley has never had a five-touchdown game through the air — he has favorable odds passing Hackenberg on a different program list: touchdowns responsible for.
With three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) against Indiana, McSorley has 53 total scores in his career. He needs two more to surpass Hackenberg for sole possession of second place.
Barring injury, McSorley should become the record-holder for touchdowns responsible, too, at some point this season. Daryll Clark’s top mark is 65.
Learn the name
It may be difficult to say his last name, but it’s a name to at least know: Godwin Igwebuike. The Wildcats safety can ball out.
Igwebuike (Igg-way-book-kay) is the heartbeat of Northwestern’s defense. The redshirt senior led the Wildcats with 108 tackles and 78 solo stops in 2016, ranking ninth nationally with 6.0 tackles per game and earning second-team All-Big Ten honors.
Over the course of his career, Igwebuike has 23 pass breakups, 12 tackles for loss and six interceptions.
He’s the No. 5 safety prospect in the 2018 NFL draft, according to CBS Sports, for a reason. Igwebuike can do it all.
McSorley will need to know where he’s at on the field at all times. So will Nittany Lion fans.