After a difficult start, the Nittany Lions have reeled off three consecutive wins, including a 35-14 blowout at Illinois.
Northwestern – which appeared in the top 25 for the first time since 2008 – realizes that it needs a strong performance to stay there.
"We got a lot of work to do this week," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's gonna be a very difficult challenge for us, going on the road and playing in one of the best environments in college football."
Penn State looked as though it was headed for a lost season early in September. First, Ohio rallied for a 24-14 win at State College. Then, the Nittany Lions outplayed Virginia, but fell victim to four missed field goals in a 17-16 loss.
The team rebounded with decisive home victories against Navy and Temple, before crushing a hapless Illinois squad. With improved production on both sides of the ball, the Nittany Lions own a great deal of momentum.
The last time NU traveled to Penn State, on Nov. 6, 2010, the Nittany Lions pulled out a 35-21 victory. Senior David Nwabuisi recalled the raucous crowd in Happy Valley.
"I remember walking in and it being all lit up," Nwabuisi said. "And they pack their stadium. It was an interesting experience, but I mean, once they snapped the ball, I didn't notice much after that."
In that game, quarterback Matt McGloin tossed four touchdown passes. Now a senior, McGloin appears to have blocked out the noise surrounding the program. With 10 touchdown passes to just two interceptions this season, McGloin played a prominent role in the three victories.
Fitzgerald saved a great deal of praise for center Matt Stankiewitch, who leads an impressive offensive line. Coach Bill O'Brien often shifts formations, but the front has held strong in the early season.
"I think Matt is one of the best offensive linemen in the country," Fitzgerald said. "The way he plays the center position is impressive. He's tough, he's physical, he's nasty. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and can get to that second level."
When NCAA President Mark Emmert imposed sanctions on the Penn State football program, many key players darted to other schools.
Along with elite running back Silas Redd, one critical departure was linebacker Khairi Fortt. Even with fewer playmakers, first-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof has led a strong unit. The Nittany Lions rank 14th nationally with only 13.6 points allowed per contest.
"We've had a go against Ted Roof in the past," Fitzgerald said. "They've gotten after us. He does a great job with their defense."
Fitzgerald also lauded other Penn State defensive players, especially linebacker Michael Mauti. With a senior quarterback, the use of several running backs and considerable depth on defense, the Nittany Lions expect to pose a stiff challenge.
In this, the first full week of classes for the NU players, Fitzgerald referenced the team's impressive overall grade point average when outlining his expectations.
"We've got to play above a 3.0 on Saturday," he said. "How does that sound?"