Northwestern faces its toughest task yet, heading into Happy Valley to play the undefeated Nittany Lions. Despite their 4-0 record, Penn State has not been impressive during its first third of the season. Rutgers gave them a run for their money in week three, so don't count Northwestern out on Saturday. Here are three big things for Northwestern vs. Penn State:
1. The line of scrimmage
This is a game that could swing on the play on the big men up front. Both teams have strong defensive lines and underperforming o-lines. Northwestern's front seven has been stout in run-stopping and pressuring the quarterback. The PSU triple threat of backs Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch is unlike anything NU has faced this season, but it's nothing they can't handle. At the same time, Northwestern's running game shouldn't expect to improve against the solid Nittany Lion d-line. The defenses are going to come to play. They've proven themselves already this season and are the backbones of each respective team. Whichever team's offensive line plays a clean game and opens up some holes for its ballcarriers has the upper hand Saturday.
2. Turnover margin
Northwestern forced four turnovers against Western Illinois last weekend, and they blocked a punt and a kick. Yet, they only scored 10 points on the ensuing drives. Not simply forcing turnovers but being opportunistic and turning those turnovers into points will be huge Saturday. NU isn't facing an FCS opponent anymore or playing a season opener. This is Big Ten play. Mistakes will be limited, and the sloppiness cannot persist. So, let Ifeadi Odenigbo loose. He forced a fumble every time he tackled someone last Saturday. The 'Cats should put the heat on Christian Hackenberg and do everything possible to keep the pressure off Trevor Siemian. Points are going to come at a premium, and they very well could come off turnovers.
3. Silence the crowd
NU does not want to fall behind early in this game, plain and simple. Beaver Stadium is going to be packed to the brim with 100,000 screaming fans, hoping their team can remain undefeated and crack the top 25 next week. The speakers blaring "we are Penn State" that Northwestern used in practice this week are far from what the real atmosphere will be like. While maybe the 'Cats can't silence the crowd, they can quiet the crowd. If Penn State goes ahead early, the fans are going to be really into the game and create play-calling issues for Trevor Siemian and dismantle the offense's communication. NU is not built to play from behind either. They need an early score to create some momentum, quiet Beaver Stadium and give the offense a chance in a hostile road environment.