UNIVERSITY PARK -- Iowa scored only three points against Penn State, then four days ago it exploded for 41 against Northwestern.
If ever there's to be a time when the Nittany Lions' struggling offense finally puts things together, it could be this week against a suspect Wildcat defense.
"We do know that Northwestern does have some holes in their defense, and our coaches are doing the best job they can to try to exploit those holes," PSU offensive lineman Quinn Barham said.
Northwestern also was torched by Michigan for 42 points and by Illinois for 38, losing both games. The Wildcats are giving up an average of 30 points per game, and that's after a good start in which they held their first three opponents to 17, 21 and 21 points.
A year ago, Northwestern jumped out to a 21-0 lead on Penn State at Beaver Stadium, only to get buried as the Lions scored 35 unanswered points. It was a similar story at Northwestern in 2009, when PSU scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to break open a tie and win, 34-13.
The Wildcats have proven they can give the Lions a good battle -- for a while. But when push comes to shove, Penn State has found a way to wear down Northwestern.
Other teams have done the same this season as the Wildcats have dropped four in a row and their first three in the Big Ten.
"If we were playing like warm garbage, I'd be struggling right now, but we're not," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "We're just not making the plays that winners make down the stretch in games, and that's what we have to coach the guys better to do.
"I watch a lot of teams as I get my chances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays that are playing like garbage. We're not."
Penn State has had all sorts of problems in the red zone, scoring just 13 touchdowns in 28 chances, which ranks 91st in the country. But this game could be a turning point for the offense if it can take advantage of Northwestern, which ranks 101st in the nation in total defense.
The Wildcats have given up 429 yards of offense per game, including 172 on the ground, which would seem to play into Penn State's hands with running back Silas Redd coming off three straight 100-yard games.
Last year's game was a coming-out party for Matt McGloin, who came off the bench to replace Rob Bolden and led Penn State back from the 21-0 deficit. McGloin was 18-of-29 for 225 yards and four TDs, including a big one to Brett Brackett with seven seconds left in the first half that got the Lions on the board and gave them momentum for the second half.
McGloin had started in place of the injured Bolden the week before against Michigan and was 17-of-28 for 250 yards with one TD, but it wasn't until he led the squad back against Northwestern that his teammates saw what he was capable of doing.
"We actually didn't know," Barham said. "We knew that he was a good quarterback ... but for him to come in there and really establish himself, that was a shock to all of us."
SUBHD: McGloin OK
McGloin took a shot to the head against Purdue, and there was speculation Monday that he may have suffered a concussion, but that wasn't the case.
"He practiced [Monday]; I guess he's OK," Paterno said. "He got cracked in the head? Well, I didn't see it, to be frank with you."
Barham also noted, "He seems fine. He got a little banged up, but it was nothing."
SUBHD: Persa factor
Northwestern has a dangerous, efficient offense led by quarterback Dan Persa, who has played three games since coming back from an Achilles injury suffered late last season.
Persa has completed 73-of-98 pass for a 74.5 percent clip, throwing for 700 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He was a big factor in the running game last season but has not been so far this year with 28 carries for minus-68 yards and 11 sacks.
Paterno called Persa "one of the better quarterbacks in the country" and praised Northwestern's offense.
"When you look at them, you get the feeling, hey, these guys can beat anybody,'" Paterno said.
The Wildcats average 405 yards of offense and have good balance, averaging 182 on the ground and 224 through the air.
Persa is from Bethlehem, Pa., and played for Liberty High School but did not draw any recruiting interest from Penn State.
"Our loss was Northwestern's gain because he sure is a good football player," Paterno said. "He makes things happen."
JoePa added that PSU didn't bring in a quarterback in that recruiting class, but even if it had wanted one, he's not sure Persa would have been on their radar.
"He's not the biggest kid in the world," Paterno said. "He's just one of those guys that's tough to evaluate because he makes things happen, he's smart, he's tough. If we were going to take a quarterback, I'm not even sure we would have taken him."
SUBHD: Injury update
Paterno didn't sound optimistic about receiver Derek Moye (broken foot) being back next week for Illinois. The Lions have a bye after that, so they could decide to give Moye that extra time to heal up.
Receiver Curtis Drake also continues to be a question mark as he recovers from a broken leg, and JoePa said, "We really can't count on him yet."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and @CoryGiger on Twitter.