Northwestern vs. Penn State: How Nittany Lions Will End Wildcats' Undefeated Run

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2012

Sep 29, 2012; Champaign, IL, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Matthew McGloin (11) hands the ball off to running back Zach Zwinak (28) during the third quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE

After weeks of clamoring for respect from mainstream voters, the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats finally got a Top 25 ranking.

Unfortunately, with that No. 24 ranking will come the team's first loss against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday.

After a heartbreaking 0-2 start to the season, Lions head coach Bill O'Brien has his team back on the right track and on a three-game winning streak. Led by a revamped offensive attack, the Lions have pounded teams into submission on the ground while using a conservative approach with quarterback Matt McGloin.

With a homecoming crowd spurring the Lions, here's a detailed look at how Penn State will topple the upstart Northwestern squad on Saturday. 

Pound the Ball With Zach Zwinak

It's no coincidence that Penn State's season turned around when the team scaled back its offensive approach and emphasized Zach Zwinak.

Listed at 6'1" and 232 pounds, the sophomore is a bruising back who slowly grinds opponents into submission. Behind inspired play by the offensive line and consistently churning legs, Zwinak is averaging nearly five yards per carry despite a long run of just 15 yards on the season.

Expect that grinding style to finally cause cracks in a Northwestern defense that has allowed just 90 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry—both figures that are the best in the Big Ten.

The Lions' rushing attack is not predicated on the lengthy stretch plays that the Wildcats have swallowed up all season. Instead, it will be straight-ahead, one-cut runs that tire out the Northwestern defense over the course of the game.

Efficient Play From Matt McGloin

The emphasis on a grind-it-out running attack has also seemingly turned the field wide open for the Penn State quarterback, who has been sensational turning the team's winning streak.

After early-season struggles had some calling for a benching, McGloin has thrown six touchdowns against just one interception in the past three games. The key to that emergence has been has been check-down passes, which have raised McGloin's completion percentage to a career-high 59.4.

What's more important is that the senior quarterback has thrown just two interceptions all season. For fans who have watched McGloin's progress over the past few seasons, that is no small feat and is a testament to the job O'Brien has done molding the signal-caller.

Penn State will need that trend to continue on Saturday when facing off against a defense that gave up 481 passing yards to Syracuse's Ryan Nassib in Week 1. 

Raucous Home Crowd

Though Northwestern certainly deserves credit for exceeding all expectations thus far, the team will walk into by far its most hostile environment of the season on Saturday.

With homecoming festivities happening throughout Happy Valley, there will likely be 110,000 fans in a tizzy and ready to rattle the Wildcats. 

While Northwestern has stood up to every test this season, it has done so at home in four of five games. This should be a close contest, which almost always favors the home team.

Look for the Lions to make it four straight wins in a hard-fought contest.

Score Prediction: Penn State 28, Northwestern 24