UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - No. 4 Penn State football (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) will take to the road once again, traveling to Northwestern (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) for a Saturday afternoon matchup at Ryan Field.
The Nittany Lions look to extend their five-game winning streak, seeking a 6-0 start to the season for the first time since 2008 while the Wildcats enter the weekend coming off a 33-24 loss to then-No. 10 Wisconsin.
Penn State shot out to an early lead in last weekend's win against the Hoosiers, paced by a pair of teams touchdowns, marking the first time the Nittany Lions have done so in the same game since 2001. Leading 28-0 in the first quarter, Penn State didn't look back surrendering just 14 points in the 45-14 final decision.
As the Nittany Lions turn the focus toward Northwestern, Franklin noted this week that Penn State would pivot from last year's "bring your own juice" approach.
"We decided on Sunday when we talked to the staff, we're not going to do that," Franklin said. "We have a routine, our practice has been really good, let's make sure we're maximizing practice and talk about what we're going to have to do on Saturday and not change our routine."
With a noon ET start, that means kickoff will be the earliest it's been all season for the Nittany Lions. For Franklin though, keeping it in the conversation and sticking with routine means there will be no room for excuses when game time comes quickly on Saturday.
Making its first trip to Evanston, Illinois since 2015, Penn State will also look to stretch its four-game road streak. Northwestern is 2-0 at home this year, also hosting the Nittany Lions on homecoming. For Franklin and the staff, the Nittany Lions are well aware of what to expect.
"Offensively, defensively and special teams, they are going to play hard," Franklin said. "They are going to be fundamentally sound. They have good schemes, but what you see is what you get. It's been a really nice model for them and it's going to be a challenge."
Saturday's matchup will broadcast live on ABC with Steve Levy (PXP), Brian Griese (analyst) and Todd McShay (sideline) on the call.
What To Watch For - Penn State
1. Ready to Go
Penn State has been effective in making the most of a fast start this year, currently outscoring opponents 73-0 in the first quarter. As Franklin noted though, the Nittany Lions are well aware of everything from an earlier than usual start time to perhaps unfavorable weather conditions, and consistency through all four quarters is still key.
"We've got to play for four quarters," Franklin said. "We can't come out and play really well in the first quarter and then play well in the fourth quarter but kind of stall in the second or third."
2. Brother vs. Brother
Franklin joked early this week that Saturday's game will be an intramural football outing for Nittany Lions Billy Fessler and Blake Gillikin. Both Fessler and Gillikin have brothers who play at Northwestern, Charlie Fessler, a sophomore wide receiver and Tyler Gillikin, a redshirt freshman long snapper. With both Billy and Blake looking forward to the unique opportunity, perhaps nobody is happier than the Fessler and Gillikin families, who plan to attend in full family support, even with plans for custom jerseys incorporating both squads.
"I think it's really unique to have two sets of brothers on opposite teams, I'm not sure if there are any two sets of teams in the country who have that," Blake said. "It's kind of good to have another guy who is going through that experience, it's definitely different. I've never played against my brother before, I don't know what it's going to be like."
3. Team Speed
Franklin noted early this week that team speed has been a major factor in Penn State's success. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive coordinator Brent Pry only echoed it. On the year, the Penn State defense is allowing just 9.4 points per game, which is tops in the Big Ten and ranked third in FBS. For Pry, the Nittany Lions are closing better than they ever have.
"We preach converging the ball, how many snaps can we get realistically eight, nine or 10 guys around the ball and sometimes perhaps 11," Pry said. "We want to take the air out of runs. Whether it's a run play or a receiver running after the catch, we want to take the air out of the run. The more team speed, the quicker you converge and take the air out of those running lanes, I see that right now and that has certainly been a factor for us. We've missed some tackles, especially early on and there's somebody right there."
What to Watch For -
1. Quarterback Clayton Thorson
Northwestern quarterback junior Clayton Thorson is coming off a career-high performance, having completed a career-high 29 passes on the road at Wisconsin, nearly helping the Wildcats to an upset with two of three total touchdown passes in the final quarter. In the Big Ten standings, Thorson is slotted second behind Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley averaging 265.3 passing yards per game, while leading the conference with an average 22.75 completions per game.
2. Productive Running
Franklin noted that Northwestern senior running back Justin Jackson is one of the more productive running backs in the Big Ten. With 4,402 career rushing yards, Jackson has been particularly productive at home, with 230 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Northwestern's two home outings this year.
A Potential Game Wrecker
Continuing with the home-trend, Northwestern's defense is surrendering 346.5 yards per game at home this year, compared to 422 yards when playing on the road. Taking a look at the Wildcat defense, Franklin noted that the Nittany Lions are prepping for redshirt senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster.
"Tyler Lancaster, their defensive tackle, is a guy that we've identified as a problem and we have to be prepared for him," Franklin said.
Outside of Lancaster, linebacker Paddy Fisher and safety Godwin Igwebuike are atop the team standings with 37 and 29 tackles, respectively. With at least seven tackles in the last three games, Fisher posted eight against Wisconsin, also recording his first career forced fumble against the Badgers.
The Final Word -
Penn State is 13-5 all-time against Northwestern, but the Wildcats have claimed wins in each of the two most recent outings against the Nittany Lions in both 2014 and 2015. Regardless of what the series history says though, McSorley noted this week that the key to success would centralize on Penn State will have to execute. For McSorley, that means taking what the defense is giving, putting together and maintaining drives even if a signature go-to shot deep shot isn't available.