The Northwestern Wildcats are on the prowl and feeling confident after making an appearance in the first batch of the College Football Playoff rankings of the 2015 season. They have earned it with wins against Stanford and Duke to go along with Big Ten victories at Nebraska and Minnesota. The losses have been bad ones though, losing by a combined score of 78-10 in back-to-back games against Michigan and Iowa. This week Northwestern looks to improve to 7-2 and 3-2 in Big Ten play with a home game against Penn State.
The Nittany Lions are still a work in progress, but you would not have known that watching them dismantle Illinois last weekend. Is this what teams should expect from Penn State the rest of the way? Playing on the road has not been too kind to Penn State this season, so picking up a hard-fought victory this weekend could help generate a little more momentum heading into a well-timed bye week with Michigan coming to State College in two weeks.
Penn State at Northwestern
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Northwestern -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Penn State carry over momentum from big Illinois win?
Penn State put together the best performance on both sides of the football the program has seen in the first year and a half under James Franklin. A 39-0 victory over Illinois was a big statement for Penn State, in which the defense made up for an uncharacteristically shaky performance against Maryland and the offense opened things up a bit as Christian Hackenberg passed for 266 yards and two touchdowns and actually caught one just for fun. Penn State rolled up 400 yards of offense while holding the Illini to just 167 yards. Now the test is to take that kind of performance on the road, which has been tricky for the Nittany Lions. Penn State is 1-2 on the road this season, with losses to Temple and Ohio State and a win against Maryland.
2. Will Thor(son) be worthy of dropping a hammer on Penn State?
The key player for Northwestern is quarterback Clayton Thorson. While he can be a bit up and down as a passer, completing 52.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns thrown against five interceptions, he gives Penn State's defense something extra to think about with his legs. Northwestern's running game has seen leading rusher Justin Jackson go three straight games without more than 40 rushing yards, but Thorson has been there to pick up the slack. Two weeks ago against Nebraska (the Wildcats were off last week), Thorson went wild with 126 rushing yards and a touchdown. He broke free for a 68-yard play against the Huskers and earlier this year rattled off a 42-yard run against Stanford. If Penn State's solid defense makes a mistake, Thorson could break another key run. Northwestern's rushing offense is ranked third in the Big Ten, while Penn State's rushing defense is ranked sixth. Penn State was gashed for 315 yards on the ground against Ohio State and 241 yards against Maryland.
3. Revenge game for Nittany Lions
This will be the fourth revenge game for Penn State this season. So far the Nittany Lions have gone 2-1 against teams that defeated them a season ago. Wins came against Maryland and Illinois the past two weeks, with the Buckeyes the only team to score a repeat victory so far. Northwestern shut down Penn State in Happy Valley last season, ruining the afternoon for the homecoming crowd. The Wildcats left town with a stunning 29-6 victory in which Penn State's offense never found any answers against the Wildcats' defense. It was a masterful performance by Pat Fitzgerald's group, but the head coach of Northwestern knows he got a couple breaks to go his team's way last year and things could easily be different this time around. If Penn State's defense can crack down on the running game, the momentum could shift in Penn State's favor.
Penn State's defense has taken a couple of lumps this season on the road, and that should be a concern again this weekend with the Nittany Lions visiting Evanston, but last week showed Penn State has a defense that is capable of shutting things down when they are on top of their game. The problem for Penn State is this Northwestern team is not one to take lightly. The Wildcats already have a home win against a rising Stanford program, and they also scored a road win at Duke earlier this season. Northwestern is not going to be easy to score many points on, so Christian Hackenberg needs to be on target and Saquon Barkley needs to have room to make some things happen. Penn State can sneak out of there with a win, but it will not be easy for either team.
Prediction: Penn State 20, Northwestern 17
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.