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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald would like to keep Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions' top-ranked defense out of the headlines.
But after the way he praised both this week, Fitzgerald might have to write off that idea.
He labeled Hackenberg as "deadly accurate" and "as good a quarterback as anyone in the country." He called Penn State's defensive tackles "dominant" and its linebackers "spectacular."
Fitzgerald's Wildcats (1-2, 0-0) travel to Penn State (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday for their Big Ten opener. Northwestern has lost eight of its last 10 games; Penn State has won six of its last seven.
Penn State's scoring defense (11 points per game) and its rushing defense (49.5 yards per game) are ranked No. 1 nationally.
"Defensively, they're very, very good," Fitzgerald said. "Up front, they're very active guys, very physical guys; they're going to be up the field and in your face."
Northwestern has had problems on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense. The Wildcats have yielded an average of nearly 400 yards per game, including 815 in home losses to California and Northern Illinois.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian has been playing on an injured ankle and threw for just 117 yards in the Wildcats' 24-7 victory over Western Illinois. Siemian has tossed just two touchdown passes in three games.
Hackenberg has played a key role in each of Penn State's four wins. He has engineered two late-game drives in wins over Central Florida and Rutgers. He has completed 91 of 150 passes for 1,261 yards and four scores.
"I think he's played extremely well," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "To me, I don't really evaluate things by one game or a series or play, it's overall. And most of those categories he's doing a nice job for us."
Some things to watch in Saturday's Big Ten game between Northwestern and Penn State:
NOT SO SPECIAL TEAMS: Opponents have punted to Penn State nearly six times a game. Penn State punt returners have made fair catches or allowed the ball to hit the ground 17 times. Of the six returns, the long gain by Jesse Della Valle has been eight yards. "First of all, I'd love for one of those guys start to start gaining more yardage," Franklin said. "But I'm not going to give up the consistency of catching the ball for the play-making at this point."
A DUAL THREAT? Along with Hackenberg's passing, the quarterback has also rushed for 81 yards — though just 29 net — and some of that yardage has come from lowering his shoulder and challenging tacklers. "I love it ... and I hate it," Franklin said. "I love it from a competitive standpoint; that's kind of who I want us to be. But that doesn't make a whole lot of sense for us right now and that's not smart. He has to be calculated."
USING THE DEPTH CHART: Franklin used 62 players in last week's 48-7 win over Massachusetts. He plans to redshirt backup quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Michael O'Connor. Franklin cited that D.J. Crook, who played about 20 minutes in relief of Hackenberg, tweeted out, "It's a dream come true," referring to his opportunity. "To me, that's what it's all about, getting the opportunity to chase a dream and go out and play and have some fun," Franklin said.
BETTER THAN NOTHING: Franklin coached against Northwestern while he was the head man at Vanderbilt. The Wildcats defeated the Commodores 23-13 in 2012. Franklin figures that experience can be helpful. "Yeah, I don't think there's any doubt that having history with people, with teams, with coaching staffs, there comes a little bit of a comfort level there or an understanding," he said. "I don't know if one game really does that, but it's better than none."
LINING THINGS UP: Hackenberg has been sacked 10 times, and Franklin said Northwestern's defensive front seven, including end Ifeadi Odenigbo and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, have potential to inflict more damage. Franklin said his oft-maligned offensive line is improving, including redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson. "Nellie's kind of like the dancing bear," Franklin said. "He is big, he is strong, he's light on his feet. Talk about a guy 315 or 320 pounds and he's really light on his feet."
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