Northwestern will be looking to keep its undefeated record intact when it faces off with a Penn State team that has been gaining momentum in recent weeks after a slow start. The Big Ten battle should be one of the week's best games.
The Wildcats began the season with a thrilling road victory over Syracuse and have been on a roll ever since, winning four straight home games. They go back out on the road this week, and it will be interesting to see how they handle the huge Penn State crowd.
After an offseason of turmoil, it wasn't surprising to see the Nittany Lions struggle out of the gate. Give them credit for bouncing back like they have, however, because it would have been easy for the team to fold under the circumstances.
Let's take a look at all the key information for Saturday's game, followed by some things to watch for and a prediction for what should be a classic Big Ten clash between Northwestern and Penn State.
Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa.
When: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
Watch: ESPN and ESPN3.com
Listen: WGN 720 AM (Northwestern) or WQWK 1450 AM (Penn State)
Betting Line: Penn State -3 (Vegas Insider)
Injury Report (via USA Today)
Northwestern: Mike Jensen (questionable, undisclosed), Jimmy Hall (questionable, undisclosed) and Daniel Jones (questionable, undisclosed)
Penn State: Pete Massaro (questionable, shoulder) and Mark Arcidiacono (questionable, foot)
Key Storyline: Can Northwestern remain undefeated?
The Wildcats weren't receiving much attention heading into the season as the perennial Big Ten powers dominated the headlines as usual. As it stands now, however, they are one of just two teams in the conference that's still unbeaten along with Ohio State.
With each passing week, more people are starting to take notice of Northwestern's strong start and that means the pressure level will continue to rise. Add in the fact it's a road game and fans should get a good idea how the Wildcats handle adversity.
Penn State is actually favored in the game after its recent resurgence, showing the oddsmakers aren't completely sold on Northwestern quite yet. When you put it all together, it's really a turning point game for the Wildcats.
Top 25 Implications
Northwestern has moved into both national polls after its early hot streak. In order to make it an extended stay, the Wildcats have to keep winning, and do it in convincing fashion to keep moving up. A loss on Saturday will drop them from the rankings.
Two losses to begin the season ensured Penn State wouldn't be in the rankings conversation for a while. Three straight wins has put them back on the right track, and a win over a ranked team might be enough for the Nittany Lions to get a few votes.
What They Are Saying
Northwestern junior quarterback Kain Colter said he knows the team will have to bring its A-game every week in order to keep winning in the Big Ten, according to Yahoo Sports:
"I think no matter who you play in the Big Ten, it’s going to be a tough game. Whether you’re playing Indiana, Nebraska, or Ohio State, all these teams are tough. Every week, we have to go out there and play like we’re playing the No. 1 team in the nation. That’s how we have to play."
Tim Gilbert of the Philadelphia Daily News reports the Nittany Lions have been motivated by people thinking they can't succeed after the NCAA sanctions:
"It's definitely motivation, just the fact that you hear students talking about how we lost our best players and how we don't really have that much talent," cornerback Stephon Morris said.
Northwestern Player To Watch: Venric Mark
The main reason Northwestern has been able to rattle off five straight wins to start the season is the team's ninth-ranked rushing attack, led by Mark. The junior running back is averaging more than five yards per carry and has scored six total touchdowns.
After being buried on the depth chart for his first two collegiate seasons, Mark has stepped up in a major way to help guide the Wildcat offense. His success has allowed Northwestern to set the pace, which is the first step toward victory.
Given the team's success to this point, don't expect the game plan to change. The Wildcats will lean heavily on Mark and his fellow running backs to find holes in an improving Penn State defense.
Penn State Player To Watch: Allen Robinson
Robinson has established himself as Penn State's top receiver, a position that's far more important in the team's revamped offensive attack than it has been in the past. He's already caught 32 passes. Derek Moye led the team with 40 for all of last season.
In order for Penn State to keep its recent hot streak alive, Robinson must continue to put pressure on defenses down the field. Not only does it open up the underneath passing lanes, but it ensures opponents can't key on the run.
Northwestern's pass defense was torched by Syracuse in the opener, but the Wildcats have appeared to clean up most of the issues from that game. Robinson must find and exploit the weaknesses.
Key Matchup: Wildcats pass defense vs. Matt McGloin
McGloin is on pace to have his best season by far, mostly due to Penn State's changing approach. The senior quarterback has thrown 10 touchdowns, just four off his career high, and is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes.
He's a perfect example of how experience helps a player grow. His decision-making skills have improved markedly since two seasons ago, and he's a lot more confident in the pocket, allowing him to pick defenses apart.
McGloin has a tough task against Northwestern, though. The Wildcats have made steady progress in recent weeks and will be looking to put constant pressure on the Penn State QB. How he responds will decide the game.
Northwestern 24, Penn State 21