After Northwestern beat Western Illinois last week, I questioned whether the Wildcats were ready for Big Ten play. The Western Illinois win did not offer evidence that NU had corrected the mistakes it revealed in losses to Cal and Northern Illinois. The Wildcats were outgained, 376-283, by the Leathernecks, converted fewer first downs (22-15) and held the ball for a shorter amount of time. If anything, the win actually stoked more fear about what lie ahead for the Wildcats.
In University Park, Pa., on Saturday, NU will face a Penn State team that, according to Football Outsiders' S&P + ratings, has played better defense than all but four other teams so far this season. The Nittany Lions also feature a quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who will probably be a first-round draft pick one day and playmaking receivers in junior Geno Lewis and sophomore DaeSean Hamilton. This is easily the best team the Wildcats have seen this season.
The game will serve as a measuring stick for how far behind NU is in the Big Ten. The Wildcats don't need to win to prove they can compete in this league - which, even taking into account last Saturday's 12-1 mark, is still very, very bad. Penn State appears to be a decent team that will probably win most of its home games this season (though Ohio State and Michigan State will be tough), and NU historically has had a rough time with the Nittany Lions. With that in mind, what do you expect to see from NU on Saturday?
A competitive showing, in which the Wildcats are at least able to keep things interesting going into the fourth quarter, would be an accomplishment. Anything more than that is probably asking too much.
Game time: 12 p.m. ET
Live stream: Big Ten Network
- What former NU linebacker Nate Williams will be looking out for in the game.
- Our predictions.
- The three things you need to look out for in the game.
- A look at Trevor Siemian's tendency to make checkdown throws.
- NU has not fared well against PSU in the past.