Penn State will face a team from the state Illinois for a second-straight week on Saturday, but this one won't resemble the bumbling Fighting Illini.
Northwestern comes to Happy Valley with a 5-0 record and No. 24 ranking next to its name. The Wildcats have been putting up offense at a frenetic pace, too. Last week against Indiana, they picked up over 700 yards of offense and are averaging 33.8 points per game this season, well more than Penn State's 24.6.
In short, this one is going to be tougher than last week's 35-7 laugher in Champaign. Below are some keys for the Nittany Lions if they hope to remain unbeaten in Big Ten play.
When Northwestern has the ball...
-Penn State needs to keep tabs on Kain Colter at all times. The quarterback/wide receiver has been gashing defenses from all angles this season. Through five games, he's racked up 369 yards and two touchdowns through the air, 371 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, and 131 yards on nine receptions. It doesn't really matter where he lines up, he's a threat so the Lions have to account for that if they hope to slow down this pretty prolific offense.
-Northwestern is averaging 255.8 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth-best nationally. Penn State, meanwhile, did a pretty good job of shutting down run-heavy offenses from Temple and Navy earlier this season. The Wildcats are clearly a cut above those two teams, but the principle remains the same: If the Lions can take the pass away to some extent and force Northwestern to go to the air, it's to their advantage.
When Penn State has the ball...
-Throw. Northwestern has given up the most passing yards in the Big Ten to this point in the season, so it's an understatement to say the Wildcats are vulnerable there. Luckily for Penn State, they have the conference's leading passer under center in Matt McGloin and star receiver Allen Robinson in the arsenal. It could be a big day for this pair. The key to a good offensive effort will be avoiding costly interceptions that could mitigate any success Penn State has. McGloin has thrown just two picks this season, so similar ball security will go a long way in this one.
-With running back Bill Belton back in the fold and his first start since his injury against Ohio in the books, look for Penn State to throw a few swing passes to the sophomore. Belton is not the downhill threat Zach Zwinak showed himself to be in gaining 100 yards last weekend, so the passing game is his area to make an impact. Look for the former receiver to get some attention from McGloin when he's in the game.
-As important as passing well will be, Penn State shouldn't abandon the run, either. The Lions have looked good on the ground the past couple of weeks after not getting much momentum in the running game early on. Keeping at least some of that going heading into the bye week will do a lot for the offensive line's confidence as it prepares for Iowa, where a good ground game will be key, in two weeks.
Northwestern's opponents to this point are just 6-14, so it's hard to know how real the Wildcats' success has been. If they're have as good as their numbers suggest, though, they'll still be quite a test for this Penn State team. The wins against Navy, Temple and Illinois were impressive but Northwestern is probably a significantly better team than any Penn State has beaten in the last month.