If there’s one thing I was certain of coming into the college football season this year, it was that both Purdue and Northwestern were going to be much improved. Those assumptions came based primarily on expected improved quarterback play from Purdue’s David Blough and Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. Well, you know what they say about assumptions. While Purdue has been an upstart team in 2017, the Northwestern Wildcats haven’t looked quite as promising.
Again, that primarily falls on the quarterback. After a stellar sophomore year after taking over for Trevor Siemian, Clayton Thorson has seemingly taken a step back this year. Last season, Thorson threw for nearly 3200 yards, while adding 22 touchdowns. He also threw just nine interceptions on 478 attempts. This year, Thorson has already been picked off five times on 142 passes. He’s added seven touchdowns through four games this year to along with just over 1000 yards passing. Thorson is on pace to throw for over 3000 yards in consecutive seasons. While the completion percentage has risen from year to year, the poor touchdown to interception ration has become a problem for the Wildcats early this year. I projected Thorson to be the fourth best quarterback in the Big Ten this season, but so far, he’s been far from it. Of course, Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett, along with the aforementioned Blough, have been better, as expected, but thus far, I’d also consider Nathan Stanley from Iowa and Brian Lewerke from Michigan State.
What I’m leaving out to this point is that Thorson has been without his 2016 leading receiver and go-to-man in Austin Carr. Carr caught 90 balls last season, good for 32 percent of Thorson’s passes, for 1247 yards and 12 of Thorson’s 22 touchdowns last year. That;s a tough loss to take, and I figured he’d take a step back because of Carr’s departure to the New Orleans Saints, but he’s struggled beyond my expectations in 2017.
What’s keeping the 75th ranked offense afloat in 2017 has been the impressive running game headlined by future NFL running back Justin Jackson. Jackson is now in his senior season as a Wildcat and has rushed for over 1000 yards in all three prior seasons. Through four games, Jackson is on pace to break that 1000 yard threshold once again. He’s carried the ball 64 times in four games for 273 yards, or 4.3 yards per carry. He’s punched it into the endzone four times this year, as well, including three times against Bowling Green. At 5’11”, 200 pounds, Jackson is a pure bruiser who beats opposing front sevens time and time again, before slipping out of a tackle and breaking a big run. Jackson has been solid catching passes, as well, as he’s brought in 13 passes thus far, good enough for fourth most on the team. The Nittany Lion defense has been serviceable against decent running backs this season, but have been gashed a few times, especially by Akrum Wadley of Iowa.
Spelling Justin Jackson will be freshman Jeremy Larkin. Larkin has been averaging about 6 carries per game, and has been little more than a change of pace back to give Jackson a breather. He’s been effective in his limited action, rushing for 102 yards and a score on 23 carries. He’s also a decent pass catcher out of the backfield, having hauled in four passes this season.
In total, the Wildcats rushing attack passes the eye test more than the statistical test. Northwestern ranks 95th in the country in rushing yards per game at 127, but the backs are more talented than stats allow one to believe. Don’t sleep on Justin Jackson in this matchup with the Nittany Lions.
Moving along to the wide receiver core, I’ve mentioned the biggest missing piece already in 2017. Austin Carr is impossible to replace with the talent that Northwestern has on its roster. Carr ran a diverse route tree, with the ability to go over the middle, stretch the field deep, and catch passes along the sideline. The second leading receiver in 2016 was Flynn Nagel, who caught 50 less passes than Carr for 447 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a massive drop off from wide out number one to number two. But Nagel has hauled in 15 passes thus far in 2017 for 149 yards. He’s yet to find the endzone, however.
Stepping up in a big way has been sophomore Bennett Skowronek. Skowronek caught just eight passes all last season, but has already brought in 17 this year. He’s taken those 17 receptions for 256 yards and two scores. For the second week in a row, the Penn State corners will have to deal with a receiver with a rare combination of size and downfield ability. At 6’4″ 218 pounds, Skowronek lines up bigger than a receiver and faster than a tight end.
Finally, there’s tight end Garrett Dickerson, who has ascended every year for the past four years up the receiving core depth chart. In 2016, Dickerson was a safety blanket for Clayton Thorson, bringing in 34 passes for 318 yards and five touchdowns. This year, he’s stretched the field a little more, catching 18 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown. He’ll be shadowed all day by the Penn State linebacking core, who will have to be wary to not allow him to slip into a soft spot in the zone coverage. He’ll hurt them if he does.
Flip to the defensive side of the ball, and the Wildcats have been somewhat exposed. 71 teams allow less yards per game than Northwestern, which is giving up 384 yards per contest through four games. Of those 384 yards, only 240 of them comes through the air each week, which plays right into Penn State’s strength, namely, the running game. Northwestern gives up 145 yards per game on the ground, 45th best in the country. Offensively, the Nittany Lions are also 45th in the rushing attack, averaging 179 yards per game with the best running back in the nation.
The Wildcats rank 80th in defensive efficiency in 2017, with a rating of 46.1 out of 100. What doesn’t bode well for Northwestern is the team’s inability to get off the field on third down, which significantly affects the defensive efficiency rating. Conversely, Penn State ranks 15th, with a near 80 rating.
Northwestern doesn’t get to the quarterback all that often, having recorded just six sacks through the first four games. This could be a huge stepping stone game for the Penn State offensive line, which hasn’t been very good this season. It’ll need to be if they want to be ready fore the vaunted Michigan front seven next week.
While I picked Northwestern to win this game at the beginning of the season, I can’t justify sticking by that pick. They simply haven’t lived up to my expectations to this point. Penn State will continue to roll and remain undefeated this season, improving to 6-0, half way to the promise land. It may stay close with the weather forecast calling for rain all day. Things could get sloppy, and it may turn into a running affair. If that’s the case, advantage Penn State.
Final Prediction: 31-13 Penn State
Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports