Will Northwestern end its Big Ten death spiral against Penn State on Saturday night (6 p.m. Central, BTN)? Or will the Wildcats drop their fifth consecutive game and drop to 0-4 in the conference?
This week, WildcatReport's clairvoyant staff is joined by special guest Shakes3858, who -- in a sign indicative of how this season is going for the guys in purple -- is one of just two writers who pick the Cats to win.
Today's bonus question: Given what we've seen over the last three weeks, what should be the nickname for the Wildcats' beleaguered defense?
Guest Prognosticator: Shakes
Northwestern wins if… Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz simplify the defense. The secondary is getting confused on the concepts being played. Hankwitz needs to find a way to take the decisions out of the players hands and allow the defense to just match up and cover someone.
Northwestern loses if… The smartest team in the Big Ten continues to forget about the six inches between their ears on both sides of the ball. We've talked about the defense all week, but the offense can't turn the ball over and give PSU anything cheap. PSU's defense will take advantage of any turnover opportunity so the offense needs to play smart.
The bottom line This is a do or die game for the Wildcats. When backed against the wall, I look at leadership: Fitzgerald, Dan Persa, Jordan Mabin, Al Netter... NU will respond defensively and the offense will play with urgency against a very stout PSU's defense.
Prediction Northwestern 27 Penn State 24
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? Given the mental breakdowns in the secondary, the corner position opposite Mabin will be known as Shutter Island.
Northwestern wins if… They hold Penn State to 24 points or fewer. I think that given the quality of Penn State's defense, Northwestern will not score more than 30 points. I think they'll be somewhere in the 20s, which would be highest point total allowed by Penn State in the Big Ten, but I don't know that they'll reach the 27 points No. 3 Alabama put up on the Nittany Lions.
Northwestern loses if…Once again the defense shows no improvement and allows 30-plus points. The maddening fact of this season is that the Cats wouldn't even need a good defense in order to be undefeated at this point. A defense that holds Big Ten opponents to, say, 30 points a game, rather than 40, would have NU at 3-0.
The bottom line Is that the leaders on the defensive side of the ball need to step up and put in a performance for the ages. I think at this point, a victory where the Cats barely scrape by or simply outgun an opponent will not turn the momentum of this season. There needs to be a statement made, and this week may very well be it. Or maybe it won't be. I want more than anything to pick the Cats again, but they've shown no improvement over three weeks of Big Ten play, why would a fourth be different?.
Prediction Penn State 30 Northwestern 24
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? The A-B-Cs. Because guys don't know whether they're in coverage A, B, or C and scoring on them is as easy as ABC.
Northwestern wins if… The defense drops no fewer than seven men into pass coverage on every down. The pass rush is clearly of no use to NU this season.
Northwestern loses if… They make ANY mistakes. There's just no margin for penalties, turnovers, or giving up big plays.
The bottom line The Wildcats are psychologically on life support. They need a really good performance for 60 minutes (even in a loss) to prove to themselves that they can compete in the Big Ten.
Prediction Penn State 40 Northwestern 21
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? The Loss Patrol.
Northwestern wins if… They limit the self-inflicted wounds (penalties and turnovers, because Penn State isn't going to beat
themselves) and stop the run. Despite the secondary's struggles, you have to invite Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden to beat you through the air.
Northwestern loses if… They let Penn State control the line of scrimmage. The Nittany Lions are fast, physical and fundamentally sound on both sides of the ball, and they have a strong linebacking corps that likes to play downhill. During Penn State's second-half surge in Happy Valley last season, Northwestern got manhandled at the point of attack.
The bottom line Until this skid ends, or until Northwestern's defense shows it can make critical stops, it's hard to predict a Wildcats victory. The Nittany Lions have allowed only 31 points combined in three Big Ten games, so it'll be relatively low-scoring.
Prediction Penn State 24 Northwestern 17
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? The Bend-and-Break Bunch.
Northwestern wins if… The Penn State pass attack is what the doctor ordered for NU's pass defense. It's no secret just how bad it's been, and the PSU tandem doesn't exactly strike fear in anyone.
Northwestern loses if… What started in State College a year ago continues to plague the Cats. Barring last year's game against Iowa, there's been a collective funk following this team around. Question is, how do they break it?
The bottom line With Nebraska and MSU left on the schedule, this is probably do-or-die time for any shot at a bowl. Maybe the Homecoming atmosphere will help, but it's one of those situations where it's difficult to see NU winning until it actually happens.
Prediction Northwestern 24 Penn State 23
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? Maybe "The Paper Curtain." That, or something akin to a folding chair.
Northwestern wins if… They can continue the offensive rhythm they had against Iowa, without the silly turnovers at bad times.
Northwestern loses if… Their defense commits errors that results in ultra-long passing touchdowns. (Side note: The defense will commit errors that result in ultra-long passing touchdowns.)
The bottom line Although this game is winnable and Penn State only has a pretend version of an offense, that hasn't stopped NU from giving up enormous amounts of points against teams before. Northwestern drops another painful game that they have opportunities to win.
Prediction Penn State 35 Northwestern 31
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? The Danger Zone (although we might actually be supposed to be playing man, we're not really sure).
Northwestern wins if… The Wildcats can control the ball, avoid critical mistakes in the red zone and the defense can shut down Penn State's passing game.
Northwestern loses if… It cannot move the ball against a veteran Penn State defense.
The bottom line Experience on the defensive side of the ball eventually gives Penn State the edge in a close game.
Prediction Penn State 17 Northwestern 14
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? Swiss Cheese. The same two holes in the secondary keep popping up each week.
Northwestern wins if… The defense puts pressure on McGloin and Bolden and creates some turnovers, and the offense controls the ball and the clock.
Northwestern loses if… They play the same way they have the last three weeks. (What's the definition of insanity again?)
The bottom line Penn State gave up three points to an Iowa team that hung 41 on Northwestern last week. I think the offense will move the ball and score some points, but you just can't pick a team that allows as many big plays as the Wildcats do.
Prediction Penn State 27 Northwestern 24
Bonus Question: What should be the nickname of Northwestern's reeling defense? It's more of a scheme than a nickname, but I'm going with The Cover-Who? Defense.