Northwestern kicks off its Big Ten season Saturday in Happy Valley amid major concerns about the team's readiness for conference play. Through four weeks, the list of disconcerting omens is not short, and thus, the attitude of this team and its fans headed into Saturday is far different from years past.
In terms of talent, nothing much has changed. As would be expected most years, Penn State seemingly has a stronger roster than the Wildcats, and at home, the Nittany Lions and their 100,000-plus fans are fairly heavy favorites.
But what's changed is this NU team. No longer are the Wildcats the plucky underdogs that could spring a surprise with a high-octane offensive display. This NU team will try to do to Penn State what the Nittany Lions have done to opponents for years, and that's win with defense.
Neither offense in this game is particularly good. Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been the subject of a ton of hype, but hasn't yet developed into a top-tier signal caller, and the talent around him, outside of maybe wide receiver Geno Lewis, is just ordinary. The inexperienced PSU offensive line could be eaten up by a respectable Northwestern front seven, and when Hackenberg doesn't have time to throw, he's far less effective.
On the other side of the ball, it's tough to see Northwestern scoring consistently against a Penn State team that ranks sixth in the country in scoring defense. The NU offense isn't going to take massive strides overnight, and it has looked disjointed through three games. So the formula here isn't based on prolificacy. It's merely sixty minutes of capability and sustainability. There will be times to be aggressive, but this offense can't be relied upon right now to get chunk after chunk of yardage.
Northwestern doesn't have to be -- and probably won't be -- dominant. But what the Wildcats have to be is opportunistic. When Penn State took on Rutgers two weeks ago in the teams' Big Ten opener, neither team played particularly aesthetic football, and it was a low scoring affair. But it was PSU that came out on top because Rutgers was far from opportunistic. The Scarlet Knights turned the ball over five times, and squandered multiple chances to cement themselves in the lead.
What Northwestern must do is emulate Rutgers, but take care of the ball, stay in manageable field position situations, and ideally break one or two explosive plays. This could be another ugly game, but unlike in the past, that might be just how Northwestern prefers it.