No. 4 Penn State will try to avoid a letdown before beginning the most difficult portion of its schedule when it visits Northwestern on Saturday for a Big Ten clash. Despite many displays of dominance during their perfect start, the Nittany Lions feel a need to improve in a few areas prior to a three-game gauntlet that includes a home matchup with No. 7 Michigan and visits to No. 9 Ohio State and Michigan State.
“It’s the little things,” coach James Franklin told reporters. “It’s the details. It’s the focus. It’s the finishing. It’s the straining. That’s been my argument to the coaches, the trainers, the doctors and the players. If everybody can just get a little bit better, just 1 percent better, then that’s going to add up.” It would be hard to imagine Heisman Trophy favorite Saquon Barkley getting much better, as the junior leads the Big Ten in rushing (574 yards), ranks third in receiving (386) and is the top kick returner in the league, posting a 98-yard touchdown return in last week’s 45-14 win over Indiana. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald called Barkley “maybe the best player I’ve seen on tape” in a Monday press conference, and his team enters with the 11th-ranked rushing defense (145 yards per game) in the league. Northwestern, which dropped its Big Ten opener at Wisconsin 33-24 last Saturday, has won the last two meetings with Penn State - the most recent one coming at home in 2015.
TV: Noon ET, ABC. LINE: Penn State -14.5
ABOUT PENN STATE (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten): Trace McSorley leads the Big Ten in passing yards (1,352) and is tied for second in TDs with 12 after a 315-yard effort against the Hoosiers. Five different receivers have at least 10 receptions and 100 yards, including tight end Mike Gesicki, who left the Indiana win following a collision but is expected to see action Saturday. Kicker Tyler Davis is under the microscope after missing two more field goals last week to drop to 5-for-11 on the season.
ABOUT NORTHWESTERN (2-2, 0-1): Junior Clayton Thorson nearly led the Wildcats back in Madison last week with a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes, and he finished with a career-high 29 completions. Thorson had loads of support from the ground game last season when Justin Jackson led the Big Ten in rushing (1,524 yards), but the senior running back has been held to 25 yards or fewer in two of the first four games. “I thought we’d be much better running the football,” Fitzgerald told reporters, adding that Jackson is feeling better this week after being dogged by a quadriceps injury.
1. The Nittany Lions rank third in the Big Ten in sacks with 13 and Northwestern has allowed a league-high 15.
2. Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton set a school record for career receptions last week and needs 80 yards to move past Derek Moye (2,395) and into fifth place on the program’s all-time list.
3. Jackson ran for 186 yards - a career high at the time - in the 23-21 win over Penn State two years ago.
PREDICTION: Penn State 34, Northwestern 22