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Three things to know about the Penn State Nittany Lions

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The Nittany Lions have talent on both sides of the ball, but also have their flaws.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a bye week, Northwestern returns home to Ryan Field this Saturday to take on Penn State. The Nittany Lions have had an interesting season. Expectations bottomed out early in the year after a loss to Temple, but all of a sudden, that loss doesn't look to bad, and coming off a 39-0 beatdown of Illinois, the Nittany Lions are riding high.

Heading into Saturday's matchup, here are three things to know about Penn State:

1. Penn State has no big wins, but no bad losses

Basically, Penn State has beaten the teams it should be beating, and has lost to the teams it shouldn't be beating. The Nittany Lions' stellar 7-2 record is buoyed by a cake-walk of an out of conference schedule and a relatively easy start to Big Ten play.

Playing Buffalo, San Diego State, Army, and Temple usually ensures four wins, especially for a solid Penn State team. But not this year. Temple handed Penn State defeat for the first time since 1941. However, while we scoffed at Penn State's abysmal performance in the 27-10 loss, Temple is actually good. The Owls are still ranked, even after a four-point loss to Notre Dame, so that loss doesn't look that bad.

Penn State's four Big Ten victories have been over Rutgers, Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois; the four teams have a combined conference record of 2-15. The Nittany Lions' lone Big Ten loss was on the road at No. 1 Ohio State, a very understandable defeat.

However, the Nittany Lions begin their gauntlet of a schedule this week at Northwestern. Following a visit to Ryan Field, they take on 16th-ranked Michigan at home, and then travel to East Lansing to play sixth-ranked Michigan State.

With Northwestern currently listed as three-point favorites, it will be interesting to see how Penn States fares against a team it matches up very evenly with.

Press Conference Notes

2. Christian Hackenberg is playing the best football of his career

When Northwestern visited Beaver Stadium last year, Christian Hackenberg looked lost. Northwestern fans didn't see a highly-touted NFL prospect that was expected to be the savior of the Penn State program. Instead, Northwestern saw what looked like the next big-time recruit who would fail to live up to those lofty expectations. Hackenberg completed under 50 percent of his passes, threw a pick-six, and finished with a QBR of 14.9 en route to a 29-6 loss. He would end the nightmarish season with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Northwestern will see a much different Christian Hackenberg on Saturday though. Things have started to click for Hackenberg in his third season in State College, and he's playing the best ball of his career. In Penn State's 39-0 victory over Illinois, Hackenberg completed 21 of his 29 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, and added a 14-yard touchdown reception. Two weeks ago Hackenberg threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-30 win over Maryland.

The weight of expectations has been burdensome for Hackenberg, especially during a 44-sack 2014 season in which he often let his emotions get the best of him. Although the sacks have continued — the Nittany Lions have allowed 31 in the first 9 games — Hackenberg has shown maturity and poise that we haven't seen from him before.

This offense goes as Hackenberg goes. In Penn State's losses to Temple and Ohio State, Hackenberg threw for a total of 223 yards. In the wins, especially over the last two weeks, he's played like the No. 2 rated quarterback prospect that Mel Kiper Jr. has made him out to be.

Part of Hackenberg's development has been the emergence of true freshman running back Saquon Barkley, who notched 142 all-purpose yards against Illinois. There hasn't been a better young running back in the Big Ten than Barkley. He's the conference's third leading rusher, averaging 102 yards per game on 6.6 per carry. Penn State's offensive line has consistently struggled against the blitz, but Barkley's presence, even through screen passes and receptions in the flat, has helped balance the attack.

Also exploding onto the scene as a star has been sophomore receiver Chris Godwin. He is fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards and has been one of the most underrated receivers in the conference. He's 6-foot-1 and physical, with the ability to win 50-50 balls, and he's become the go-to target for Hackenberg. Look for Hackenberg to get Barkley and Godwin involved early and often against the Northwestern defense.

3. The defense is talented but inconsistent

Led by defensive end Carl Nassib, the Penn State defensive line has been a force to be reckoned with. Nassib, a former walk-on, leads the FBS in sacks with 14.5, and All-Big Ten defensive tackle Austin Johnson and senior Anthony Zettel are formidable through the middle. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald even considers both to be future first round NFL draft picks.

The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in sacks, averaging four per game, and Penn State is coming off the shutout of Illinois where they allowed only 167 yards (130 passing, 37 rushing). The defense had four sacks last week, giving it sacks in 31 consecutive games, the longest such streak since sacks became an official NCAA statistic in 2000. Want more? The defense had nine tackles for loss, the 16th straight game with at least five TFLs, which is also the longest streak since 2000.

But Penn State's defense has been far from dominant against mobile quarterbacks. Three weeks ago, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett torched the Nittany Lions' for 102 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in a 38-10 victory, while Maryland quarterback Perry Hills rushed for 124 yards a touchdown in a losing effort. Turnovers are what killed the Terrapins — they had five, including three interceptions from Hills — but they did move the ball. Perhaps Clayton Thorson can take advantage of the Nittany Lions' vulnerability on the ground.