University Park, Pa. — Home losses to California and Northern Illinois didn't set Northwestern up with a lot of confidence.
A 29-6 victory at Penn State (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday — keyed by an outstanding effort from Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian as well as a defense that provided unrelenting pressure — was the perfect remedy.
Siemian ran for three touchdowns and passed for 258 yards to help Northwestern even its record at 2-2 and win its Big Ten opener.
Siemian, who was 21-of-37, and the Wildcats established control early with short passes and a ball-control offense that netted 361 yards. Fourteen of Northwestern's 17 first downs came by the pass.
"I think we've said all along we weren't a finished product," Siemian said. "I know the Big Ten has gotten a bad rap, but it just shows how competitive this thing is. At this point in the season, everyone wants to declare a Big Ten champ.
"We got our first downs and some tempo. We got a little rhythm. That's kind of our identity as a rhythm offense. We got the chains moving."
Northwestern's defense refused to let Penn State move. The Lions netted 50 rushing yards and just 266 overall; they punted seven times.
The Wildcats repeatedly pressured Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. They notched four sacks and countless hits.
"All you can control is the way you prepare and the way that you play," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We've made mistakes that have cost ourselves games.
"We're three or four catches away from being undefeated. We're not, that's reality. All the credit goes to our young men."
Northwestern, despite a few special-teams mistakes that allowed Penn State temporary momentum, never allowed the Nittany Lions' offense to establish any consistency.
Penn State converted just 3 of 17 third-down plays, and while Hackenberg went 22-of-46, each net gain averaged just 4.7 yards.
Penn State hadn't been held without a touchdown since a 24-3 loss to Iowa in 2010.
"I take full responsibility, we weren't ready to play today," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "We're having the same issues that have popped up all year long — consistently being able to run the ball and protecting the quarterback.
"The bye week couldn't come at a better time." Penn State is idle until an Oct. 11 game at Michigan.
"We will get it fixed," Franklin said. "I promise and guarantee you that. We will get it fixed."
Northwestern's Matthew Harris was carted off late in the third quarter after a headfirst collision with Hackenberg.
Harris was responsive and offered the thumbs-up signal while leaving the field. Fitzgerald said after the game that tests were clear and that Harris was en route back to the stadium during Fitzgerald's postgame news conference.
Penn State's rushing defense was ranked No. 1 nationally entering the game, yielding just 49.5 yards per game. The Wildcats ran for 103, including 50 from Justin Jackson and 49 from Warren Long.
"For us to come in here against that defense and run for 100 yards is something we've set as a goal before games," Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats led 14-6 and broke the game open in the fourth when linebacker Anthony Walker intercepted Hackenberg and returned it 49 yards for a score.
"It was a great defensive call at the time," Walker said. "They were ducking us on the quick passes and the quarterback kind of looked me off a little bit. I just made a play."
On the next Penn State possession, Xavier Washington sacked Hackenberg, forcing a fumble. Jack Mitchell's ensuing 23-yard field goal made it a three-score margin. Siemian's one-yard plunge set the final score.
Ten Wildcat receivers caught Siemian passes, including seven by Dan Natale for 113 yards.
Penn State's Hackenberg was forced into running the ball 11 times for a net of 5 yards.
"I think you just have to move on and understand the mistakes," Hackenberg said. "We'll go back and watch the film. I think the bye week is going to help.
"We're 4-1. We didn't necessarily play our best football today so we just have to try to continue to reach that goal of our best football."