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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions (3-2) will play their first Big Ten home game under head coach Bill O'Brien against No. 22 Northwestern (5-0) on Saturday in Beaver Stadium (noon, ESPN).
Penn State brings a three-game winning streak into this week's Homecoming clash with the unbeaten Wildcats following a 35-7 thumping of Illinois. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin accounted for three scores and Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week Michael Mauti picked off two passes to help lead the Lions past the Illini in Champaign.
In their sixth-straight game on ESPN/ABC to open 2012, the Nittany Lions will faceoff with red-hot Northwestern leading into next week's open date. Saturday marks Penn State's 93rd Homecoming game. Welcome to the gameday preview.
What to Watch For - Penn State
1. Moving the chains and sustaining offensive drives are two big factors in the offensive gameplan every Saturday, but this week both will take on extra importance for Matt McGloin and the Nittany Lion offense. Northwestern's up-tempo spread offense wants to run 80-90 plays each week. That being said, Penn State's offense can, in some ways, be its best defense on Saturday. The Lion offensive line played its best game to date at Illinois, allowing the Lions to rush for 173 yards against a talented front four. The Lions will again use their great depth in the backfield - Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, Michael Zordich, Derek Day and Curtis Dukes - to ensure fresh legs are on the field as much as possible. Moving the football and sustaining drives into the red zone will be key for McGloin and company against Northwestern. Keep an eye on the matchups between the Penn State receivers and the Wildcat cornerbacks.
2. Northwestern athlete Kain Colter is a dynamic player capable of making big plays on any down. As we noted earlier this week, Penn State needs to do a great job keeping track of where Colter lines up on every play. The Wildcats challenge defenses with the ball frequently finding its way into open space. With that being said, Penn State's linebackers and defensive backs will need to a great job tackling in the open field. Look for plenty of one-on-one tackle opportunities when Northwestern skill players have the ball in their hands. The Lions have worked on that all week long, but it's tough to replicate Northwestern's offensive tempo on the practice field. Michael Mauti and company will be looking to play a disciplined defensive game against a Northwestern offense that tallied 704 yards last week.
3. In 2012, the Penn State offense is 13-for-21 (62 percent) in red zone opportunities. Coach O'Brien would be the first one to tell you that the Lions want to improve in the red area and that the offense has left too many points off the board. The offense has made significant strides since the season started, but scoring touchdowns in the red zone against a high-powered offense like Northwestern's will be critical on Saturday. Execution and keeping mistakes (penalties, sacks, turnovers) to a minimum are big parts of success in the red zone. The same is true on the defensive side of the ball. Penn State held Illinois out of the end zone on three trips inside the 20-yard line last week.
What to Watch For - Northwestern
1. From start to finish on Saturday, Northwestern will spread the Nittany Lions out on defense. Colter is listed as the starting quarterback, but look for redshirt sophomore Trevor Siemian to be the primary signal-caller for the Wildcat offense. In year's past, Northwestern has challenged teams with a spread passing attack, but this season the Wildcats have dominated offensively with a dynamic "spread" rushing game. The Wildcats have averaged 255.8 rushing yards per game in 2012. Running backs Venric Mark, Mike Trumpy and Colter are the three players to watch. That trio has averaged 5.5 yards per attempt this season.
2. On the defensive side of the ball, Northwestern will be looking to slow down Penn State's rushing attack with sound play from its front seven. The Wildcats want to play fast on offense, and that starts with third-down defense. If the Northwestern defense is able to limit Penn State's running game and get off the field on third down, the Wildcats will be able to play at the tempo they like to on offense. The matchup in the trenches between the Nittany Lion offensive line and the Northwestern defensive line is another key area to watch on Saturday.
3. Penn State has shut out its opponents in the first quarter of 2012 (49-0), and it has out-scored teams 76-9 in the first half. Northwestern's offense will be looking to reverse that trend on Saturday with a quick start to dictate the game's tempo. The Wildcats have out-scored teams by an 84-33 margin in the first half this season.
Kickoff: 12:01 p.m.
TV: ESPN - Dave Pasch (PBP), Brian Griese (Analyst), Jenn Brown (Sidelines)
Radio: Penn State Sports Network - Steve Jones (PBP), Jack Ham (Analyst), Loren Crispell (Sidelines)
Stadium: Beaver Stadium (106,572) - Natural Grass
Coaches: Bill O'Brien - 3-2, 1st season
Pat Fitzgerald - 45-36, 7th season at Northwestern
The Series: 16th meeting
The Final Word:
Although Penn State has won three-straight games, the Nittany Lions are still searching for a complete, 60-minute performance in 2012. Nevertheless, the squad has made good progress week after week after week, and the confidence level is continuing to grow. Coach O'Brien said earlier this week that Northwestern is the best team the Nittany Lions have played thus far. Penn State will need a complete performance on offense, defense and special teams to put itself in a position to score a crucial victory heading into the bye week. The coaching staff takes each week one game at a time without looking ahead, but the game before a bye is always important because you never want to think about a loss for two weeks. Coach O'Brien has urged the Penn State students to be in the stadium early for the noon kickoff. Saturday's Big Ten opener is a critical game for both teams. The Lions want to continue their momentum, and the Wildcats are searching for a trademark road win to become bowl eligible. It is shaping up to be an entertaining afternoon in Beaver Stadium on Homecoming.
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