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Penn State-Northwestern Prediction: Racing Toward Michigan

Penn State gets the struggling Wildcats before setting up the first marquee game of the Big Ten season.

Penn State needs to execute one more transaction to set up the Big Ten's first marquee matchup of the season. So when can we begin talking about Penn State vs. Michigan on Oct. 15?

The No. 11 Lions host Northwestern looking for their third 5-0 start in the past four seasons. They're huge favorites over a team that has yet to win in the U.S. and is the second-lowest ranked Power 5 team in the ESPN College Football Power Index.

As a result, this game should afford Penn State another opportunity to rotate its players, develop more depth and further gets its quarterbacks some throws. All that will matter in mid-October.

But before getting there, let's take a closer look at Saturday's game.

Penn State (4-0) Vs. Northwestern (1-3)

  • When: 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
  • Where: Beaver Stadium
  • TV: ESPN
  • Streaming: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
  • Betting Line: Penn State is a 25.5-point favorite per SI Sportsbook
  • Series History: Penn State leads 14-5
  • Last Meeting: Penn State 31-7 in 2017
  • Streaks: The series' last two games were at Northwestern

The Story Line

Penn State has begun a season 4-0 for the 39th time in its history and the sixth time in coach James Franklin's nine seasons. What's unique about this one? It includes two road wins over Power 5 teams.

Among the 17 FBS teams that are 4-0 this season, just four have beaten Power 5 teams twice on the road: Penn State, Clemson, Florida State and USC. Three of them, including Penn State, are among the top 11 in the AP poll.

That underscores Penn State's battle-tested status early, one that should pay dividends. And the fact that the Lions have played a huge group of players (74 vs. Ohio, 59 vs. Central Michigan) in that stretch means even more.

No, the Lions weren't exactly at their best in a 33-14 win over Central Michigan. The offense stalled in the second quarter, the defense allowed two touchdowns (one on a 67-yard drive) and the kicking game continued to be erratic.

However, Penn State's first three games each represented an emotional milestone: the Thursday-night, Big Ten road-opener; the first home game for many players; and the Big Ten's first visit to Auburn. As a result, last week's game seemed mundane.

But Northwestern, however troubled it is, remains a Big Ten opponent. The result matters, as do style points. And the Wildcats are looking for back-to-back wins at Beaver Stadium (though they haven't played there since 2014).

Penn State needs a big win Saturday to shake the residue of last week, to demonstrate its national rise and to fulfill its half of the unbeaten meeting in Ann Arbor.

Penn State coach James Franklin

Penn State coach James Franklin is 1-3 vs. Northwestern, including a loss while he coached at Vanderbilt.

Penn State Players to Watch

Nicholas Singleton: Central Michigan held him reasonably in check (12 carries, 42 yards), so we'll see whether Northwestern can repeat the feat. Odds are Singleton breaks a big one.

Drew Allar: James Franklin said he hasn't been able yet to get Allar more first-half playing time. Saturday's game could be a good place to start.

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PJ Mustipher: The defensive tackle is rounding into his 2021 form. He needs one more step forward to be ready for October powerful rushing offenses.

Northwestern Players to Watch

Peter Skoronski: The Wildcats have a star in their left tackle, who Franklin said he recruited out of high school. The 6-4, 315-pound Skoronski lands on many mock drafts as 2023's No. 1 tackle.

Evan Hull: What does the Northwestern running back have in common with Saquon Barkley? He and Barkley are the only FBS players since 2000 to record more than 350 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards through their first four games (Barkley did so in 2017). Hull also leads the nation with 681 yards from scrimmage.

Bryce Gallagher: The 6-2, 240-pound linebacker is a prolific tackler. He has 38 through four games (including a Big Ten-best 23 solo tackles) after making 89 last season. Penn State's backs will get to know him.

The Prediction

Penn State will run a mostly austere game plan, with perhaps a funky play or two get it on tape for Michigan to see. Otherwise, the Lions should seek to establish and maintain a physical presence, particularly since Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has been critical of his team's inability to win one-on-one battles.

Northwestern runs tons of plays (a Big Ten-high 341 this season) and does so with pace, which means the Lions' defense will be active. That's good; this group has plenty of young talent to showcase. They'll be flying Saturday.

Next stop, Ann Arbor.

Penn State 31, Northwestern 10

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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.