Will Penn State Be First Team to Stop Northwestern's Two QB Offense?

Will Penn State Be First Team to Stop Northwestern's Two QB Offense?

Earlier this week Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien said No. 24 Northwestern will bring the best offense his team has seen all season. He may be right, although Ohio is averaging just about six more yards per game than the 5-0 Wildcats, who look to score their first victory in Beaver Stadium since 2004, and just their second win at Penn State since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993 (Noon / ESPN).

So what is it about these Wildcats that has O’Brien so impressed?

It starts, as usual, with the quarterback Kain Colter. The junior from Denver was named co-offensive player of the week in the Big Ten last week, but wasn’t praised for his passing production (1-for-3 for 2 yards and an interception). Instead Colter did some damage on the ground with 161 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns and nine receptions for 131 yards, while QB Trevor Siemian delivered him the ball. Colter’s on offense gives Northwestern offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike McCall some options to play with. That is not a fact that escapes O’Brien, who looks to become the fifth coach in the conference to win the first two Big Ten games of his career.

“Well, that's a guy that you have to understand on every single snap where he is,” O’Brien said this week. “Here is a guy that they are doing a great job with of putting him in position to make plays. Obviously a quarterback, but then when they move him to wide receiver, with his skill set, he's quick. He's got good ball skills and a very bright guy obviously.

Of course, Northwestern also has a talented coaching staff led by former Northwestern standout linebacker Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has a knack for getting players unlike those who go to Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State but who generally hold their own nonetheless.

Penn State has a size advantage, as well with depth and stamina, but that has not stopped Northwestern from giving Penn State some big scares in recent seasons.

The last time Northwestern visited Beaver Stadium, two seasons ago, the Wildcats built a 21-0 lead with 56 seconds to play before the half. But Matt McGloin put up 225 passing yards and four touchdowns, Evan Royster and Silas Redd each ran for 130+ yards and Penn State muscled their way back for a wild victory with 35 unanswered points. The thrill of victory was sweet enough, but that was also the 400th career win for former head coach Joe Paterno.

Last season saw Penn State make the trip to Evanston, Ill., Paterno made history again. Penn State and Northwestern exchanged blows in a 27-24 first half, but it was a different story in the second, when the defense put the clamps down on Northwestern’s offense, outscoring the home team 7-0 to pull away with the win that tied Paterno for the Division 1 career wins mark with Eddie Robinson. Paterno would break the record the following week at home against Illinois before all Hell broke lose on the campus and, well, you know the story.

There is not nearly the kind of college football history resting on this game, with O’Brien looking for his fourth career victory and Fitzgerald looking for his 46th career win.

So here we are, about a year later and Northwestern is enjoying some nice publicity with a 5-0 record, although their opponents have combined for just one win against FBS competition. To be fair, Penn State’s victories have come against teams with a combined one FBS win as well. But the Wildcats have cracked the Top 25 and now they head on the road for the toughest game of their season to date. As O’Brien said, Northwestern has the best offense Penn State has seen so far. But Penn State also has the best defense Northwestern has seen so far. O’Brien knows that his counterpart, Fitzgerald, will have his Wildcats prepared for the challenge.

“Pat's done an excellent job there of just putting an excellent team together, an undefeated team,” O’Brien said. “We have got a huge challenge ahead of us on Saturday.”

The key for Penn State will be to create problems for Colter, wherever he may be lining up on the field. Northwestern lacks a lethal passing game and has piled up some good numbers on the ground. Fortunately for Penn State, when teams have to rely on the run so much they tend to have an edge with a defense led by Michael Mauti that is so good at tracking down the football on the ground.

Penn State enters this week 46th against the run, allowing an average of 129.80 rushing yards per game. That average is inflated slightly by allowing run heavy Navy, who accumulated 255 rush yards. Ohio was able to put together 175 rushing yards in week one and Temple put up 113 rushing yards a couple of weeks ago. Overall, though Penn State has seen steady improvement on both sides of the football on a weekly basis, one of the few teams around the country that can probably say that.

Against Northwestern though, in front of what could be a solid homecoming crowd, it will be necessary to stay sharp early on and keep chugging away. That is because Northwestern may be outmatched in physicality, but they will match anyone head-to-head with mental toughness.

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Sixers-Pelicans 5 things: Joel Embiid takes on dominating Anthony Davis

Sixers-Pelicans 5 things: Joel Embiid takes on dominating Anthony Davis

76ers (4-18) vs. Pelicans (7-15)
8 p.m. on TCN and CSNPhilly.com, Pregame Live starts at 7:30

The Sixers will try to snap their eight-game losing skid when they take on the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on Thursday night.

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Walking wounded, part II
After the Sixers were limited to nine available players in Tuesday's loss to the beat-up Memphis Grizzlies, things won't be much better in the health department in New Orleans.

Sure, Joel Embiid's expected return after sitting out the second half of a back-to-back set for rest will be a welcome boost. However, the Sixers are still dealing with a host of other ailments that will likely limit them to just 10 healthy bodies on Thursday night.

The Pelicans surely won't shed a tear for the Sixers because they have their own injury issues. New Orleans could have as many as five players sidelined, including former Sixer Jrue Holiday with turf toe.

2. The next big thing
All of the injuries won't decrease the game's intrigue, mainly because of the matchup at center between Embiid and Anthony Davis.

Embiid is coming off a subpar performance in his last outing against the Denver Nuggets, but the big man has still been as advertised this season. The rookie is putting up 18.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 23.3 minutes a game. Embiid is also shooting 46.8 percent from the field and an even 50.0 percent from three-point range.

On the other side, Davis has been an absolute monster for the Pelicans this season, even if it hasn't translated into many wins. 

The three-time All-Star leads the NBA in scoring with 31.6 points per game on 50.3 percent shooting. While carrying the scoring load, Davis has still been able to average a career-high 11.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 2.2 assists and 1.8 steals a night.

This should be the first of many meetings between two big men that look to dominate the future of the league.

3. Glass repair
With Embiid out on Tuesday, the Sixers were dominated 69-54 in the rebounding battle against the Grizzlies.

They should find things a little easier in that department against the Pelicans. Despite Davis' best efforts on the boards, New Orleans has allowed a league-high 48.9 rebounds to opponents this season. 

With Embiid back in the lineup, Ersan Ilyasova coming off a 17-rebound game and Richaun Holmes always active, the Sixers should be able to control the rebounding category.

4. Injuries
Jahlil Okafor (illness) is questionable. Robert Covington (knee/illness), Jerryd Bayless (wrist), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

Holiday (toe) and E'Twaun Moore (toe) are questionable. Tyreke Evans (knee), Dante Cunningham (knee) and Quincy Pondexter (knee) are out for the Pelicans.

5. This and that
•  The Sixers are trying to avoid a franchise-record 24th straight road loss.

•  The Sixers and Pelicans split the season series in 2015-16 with each team winning at home.

•  Ilyasova is averaging 16.2 points and 8.2 boards so far in December.

Eagles repeating pattern of digging first-quarter hole in defeats

Eagles repeating pattern of digging first-quarter hole in defeats

It’s a pattern that keeps repeating itself. And it’s not a winning pattern.

Week after week, the Eagles are digging themselves a first-quarter hole. And week after week, they’re too far behind to catch up.

They trailed the Lions 14-0 in the first quarter. They trailed the Redskins 14-0 a minute into the second quarter. They fell behind the Cowboys 10-3 early in the second. The Giants jumped up on them 14-0 just six minutes in. And on Sunday, the Bengals led 10-0 before the first quarter was over.

If football games began at the start of the second quarter? This would be a different season. The Eagles would be 7-4-1.

The Eagles has actually outscored their opponents in the second, third and fourth quarters.

But the first quarter has been fatal.

The Eagles have been outscored by 32 points in the first quarter – 65 to 33. That’s their fourth-worst first-quarter scoring margin in the last 25 years, behind only three other nightmarish seasons – 1998 (minus-52), 2005 (minus-51) and 2012 (minus-75).

It’s also fourth-worst of any NFL team this year, ahead of only the Jets (minus-36), Broncos (minus-37) and Dolphins (minus-56).

Some teams – like the Broncos and Dolphins – have enough firepower to fight from behind.

The Eagles don’t.

They’re 4-0 when leading after the first quarter, 1-1 when tied after the first quarter and 0-6 when trailing after the first quarter.

At 0-6, they share the second-worst record in the NFL when trailing after 15 minutes with the Jaguars and 49ers. The Browns are 0-8 when trailing after the first quarter.

Last time the Eagles didn’t win a game all year when trailing after the first quarter was 1998. Before that 1977.

“It’s tough, especially in this league, to dig yourself a hole,” Carson Wentz said. “Whether the defense is struggling or the offense giving them points with turnovers and different things, it’s been a variation of a lot of those things. 

“It’s tough to dig yourself a hole against anybody, especially against good teams. So we’ve got to avoid that and we’ve got to come out swinging a little better early in games.”

The last time the Eagles won after trailing following the first quarter was the Dallas game last year, when they trailed 7-0 and won 33-27 in overtime.

What does it say about a team when it’s allowed twice as many points as it’s scored in the first quarter?

It sure seems like the Eagles several times this year simply haven’t been ready to play.

“The start to games, it's a mindset,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “It's truly a mindset. It's one of those things where as a team you want to come out and you want to kind of make the first punch, so to speak, or swing first. 

“We did it against Green Bay. We went down and scored, we matched touchdown for touchdown there. And we've done it throughout the course of the season. We've got to be a little more consistent offensively, too. That can also help. And then defensively it's just a matter of working to get off the field.

“It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the game if you can do that early in a football game.”

The Eagles have scored just three first-quarter touchdowns all year (only the Broncos have fewer) and haven’t scored more than seven points in any of their 12 first quarters.

They’ve allowed nine first-quarter touchdowns, and only one team has allowed more – the Dolphins with 10.

Wentz has completed 67 percent of his first-quarter passes but with just one TD pass and four interceptions.

Incredibly, the Eagles have only five plays all year of more than 20 yards in the first quarter – just one in the last four games. Only the Saints, Jaguars and Broncos have fewer.

Why are the Eagles so bad early in games?

“There is no other answer than to execute one play at a time,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “There's no magic formula. I think we've had good energy at practice. I like the way we practice. I feel like we are putting together good plans.

“We're showing flashes of being a good football team. We need to be more consistent. We need to make more big plays. It's hard to sustain 14-play drives. We've missed a few plays here and there. We just all – coaches, players together – need to make it work one play at a time.”

The only teams to outscore the Eagles in the second half are the Cowboys (13-10), Seahawks (10-8) and Packers (13-3).

When a team has outscored its opponents by 61 points in the second, third and fourth quarters combined and it’s 5-7, the focus has to be on the first quarter.

That means preparation. That means being mentally and physically ready. 

“Yeah, I do look at all of that, and that's part of my job is the (pregame) schedule and all,” Pederson said. “But these guys are in a great frame of mind on game day. They're loose; they're energetic; they're ready to go. They're focused. 

“You see it in pregame. It's been unfortunate, but it's something we've got to focus in on a little bit more … and try to strike first.”

The Eagles will try to end their three-game losing streak at 1 p.m. Sunday when they face the Redskins at the Linc.

The Redskins, 6-5-1 but with a two-game losing streak, beat the Eagles 27-20 in Landover, Md., in October.

“I think it just comes down to being focus and locking in,” Wentz said. “You’ve seen us. There’ve been games where we’ve come out and we’re rolling right away.

"We just have to find a way to maintain that and be consistent with that. The goal is to come out swinging right away.”