"Northwestern has a high-powered offense so it's definitely important for us to control the ball," sophomore tailback Bill Belton said. "We have to kind of slow them down a bit to give our defense a break. Going into this weekend, we basically have a game plan to help our defense out."
The rushing game - with Belton, a former Winslow Township High star who is now back from an ankle injury, and 232-pound sophomore Zach Zwinak - seems to have found its stride. The Lions (3-2 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) have rushed for 173 yards in each of the last two weeks.
Zwinak, who picked up 94 yards against Temple and 100 last week at Illinois, has been utilized late in games, and has shown a knack for knocking over defenders while running between the tackles.
Combine that with an effective short- to medium-range passing game from senior quarterback Matt McGloin, and the Lions can play keep-away if they move the chains and avoid turnovers. The Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) have struggled against the pass, allowing 289 yards per game.
"It's important for us to hang on to the ball this week," McGloin said. "They have a very explosive offense."
Of course, the Lions defense will be out there at some point and it must be ready for an offense that rolled up 704 yards in last week's 44-29 victory over Indiana. The Wildcats average 82 plays and 27 first downs.
"They make you defend the entire width of the football field," Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "They stretch you horizontally. It doesn't allow you to gang up on people. It forces guys to make one-on-one plays in space."
Colter, a 6-foot, 190-pound junior, is the starting quarterback but sophomore Trevor Siemian takes over when Colter lines up in the backfield or splits wide. Siemian is more than capable of moving the football, having completed 22 of 32 passes for 308 yards against Indiana.
The matchup in the red zone will be an interesting one. The Wildcats boast the Big Ten's No. 1 red zone offense with 23 scores (13 touchdowns, 10 field goals) in 25 opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Lions have allowed their opponents to score 13 times (11 touchdowns, two field goals) in 21 trips to the red zone. Last week, they stopped Illinois three times inside the 10, including an interception and a 99-yard return by linebacker Michael Mauti.
There is something else to consider. Northwestern's five opponents this season - Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota, and Indiana - did not have a single victory against an FBS opponent during the month.
Northwestern at Penn State
Saturday at noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
TV/Radio: ESPN; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Records: Penn State, 3-2 overall, 1-0 Big Ten; No. 24 Northwestern, 5-0, 1-0.
Coaches: Penn State, Bill O'Brien (first season, 3-2); Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald (seventh season, 45-36).
Series: Penn State leads, 12-3, on the field but eight of its wins have been vacated by NCAA sanctions. Northwestern's last victory came in 2004; the Nittany Lions have won the last five.
Betting line: Penn State by 21/2.
Three things to watch
Kain Colter. Well he's a person, not a thing, but Northwestern's do-everything quarterback/running back/wide receiver will line up everywhere and the Nittany Lions have to account for him on each and every play.
The Lions' resurgent rushing game, which has accounted for 173 yards in each of the last two weeks, has to be on this week to chew up huge chunks of time to keep the ball away from the Wildcats' potent offense.
The Wildcats hold an impressive edge in the kicking game. Jeff Budzien has been a perfect 11 of 11 on field goals as compared with the 2-of-8 mark for Penn State's Sam Ficken, and the visitors average nearly 8 more yards in net punting.
Three things you might not know
With a career-high 100 yards on the ground last week at Illinois, sophomore Zach Zwinak became the 85th Penn State player to hit the century mark in rushing in a game. Of that number, 38 have done it once.
Fitzgerald has emphasized all week to his team the importance of getting off to a strong start in October. The Wildcats are 10-15 in October, as compared to 20-9 in September and 13-8 in November, under Fitzgerald.
With 10 touchdown passes and four scoring runs, quarterback Matt McGloin has accounted for 14 of Penn State's 16 offensive touchdowns. The 17th came against Navy on linebacker Mike Hull's 74-yard fumble return.
- Joe Juliano
Contact Joe Juliano at email@example.com or on Twitter @joejulesinq.