It's called a trap or sandwich game, and that is what is facing Penn State this afternoon when it visits Evanston, Illinois to face Big Ten foe Northwestern.
A trap game refers to a contest that a team may overlook because it has two more important games before and after it, at least relatively speaking. The danger is that a team may have a letdown in such a sandwich game, and a loss can undermine the whole scenario.
In Penn State's case, the Lions, ranked 12th in the latest Bowl Championship Series and Associated Press sportswriters poll (although the USA Today Coaches poll has PSU ranked 10th), are coming off their most impressive showing of the season, thumping Michigan in Ann Arbor, 35-10.
Next week is the annual Border War with Ohio State at Beaver Stadium, which is now scheduled for a 3:30 kick-off. That game needs no extra hype.
That leaves the Lions to face Northwestern in between Big Ten goliaths, and while the Wildcats are no longer the doormats they were when PSU entered the Big Ten, the adrenaline level might not be off the charts for this one for many observers.
Northwestern, coached by former Wildcat standout linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, is 5-3, 2-2 in the Big Ten. Two of the Wildcats' losses were to Syracuse (37-34) and Minnesota (35-24), two teams the Lions were able to handle. The other loss was to Michigan State (16-6).
On the other hand, Northwestern has a win over Purdue (27-21), which bounced the Buckeyes a couple of weeks ago, and last week rallied from a 28-3 deficit to shock Indiana with a 29-28 verdict.
At 7-1 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten, the Lions cannot afford to slip up the rest of the way if they want to remain in contention to defend their conference crown. PSU is already one game in the hole due to the loss to Iowa and will need some help with the Hawkeyes, who have let to lose this season.
But first, PSU can't look past the Wildcats in today's 4:30 Eastern time kick-off, which is scheduled to be televised by ESPN. On Halloween, that is a scary proposition.
"We've got to play Northwestern," said Joe Paterno in his weekly press conference (www.gopsusports.com ). "I haven't even thought about the game after that one. And hopefully, we haven't."
Paterno expressed a great deal of admiration for Fitzgerald this week and the job he has done at his alma mater in four seasons, where he has a record of 24-21 after taking over following the sudden death of Randy Walker.
"He's a heck of a competitor," said Paterno. "His kids are playing with enthusiasm, tough, and making plays when they have to. They're big play opportunists, and they have a fine quarterback (Mike Kafka) and two receivers (Zeke Markshausen, who has 58 catches, and Andrew Brewer, who has 31) that catch everything that's around them."
Getting back to scary scenarios: in the comeback against Indiana last week, the Wildcats blocked a punt. That is a concern for the Lions, as Jeremy Boone, who is punting well otherwise, has had two blocked this season, one of which turned around the Iowa game and the other last week, one of the few blemishes in an otherwise dominant performance by the Lions at the Big House.
"The blocked punt had a lot to do with it (Northwestern's rally), so we're going to spend a lot of time on the punting game," assured Paterno.
The Lion offense can do its part if it produces the way it did against the Wolverines. Quarterback Daryll Clark looked sharp in completing 16 of 27 passes for 230 yards, tying for his career high with four touchdown passes without an interception. Clark hit Graham Zug with three of the TD passes and laid a 60-yarder to tight end Andrew Quarless right on the money.
This week Clark was named as a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award, which former PSU signalcallers Todd Blackledge and Kerry Collins have won. Michael Robinson was the last Lion semifinalist for the award in 2005. Clark was also selected as Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for his performance and is one of 10 finalists for the Johhny Unitas Golden Arm award.
The Lion defense continues to shut down opposing offenses. Michigan entered last week's game leading the Big Ten in scoring at 37.3 points per game. While the Wolverines scored a TD on their opening possession, it was lights out after that, as PSU held them to season lows in points and yards (250, 176 below their average).
Linebacker Navorro Bowman continued to play well, making a game-high 11 tackles, including a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception. The Lions defensive front also made life miserable for the Michigan QBs.
PSU will look to do the same against Kafka, who has passed for 2,067 yards and 9 TDs and also leads Northwestern in rushing with 206 yards and 5 TDs. Kafka leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game (258.4) and total offense (284.2 per game).
In addition to Markshausen and Brewer, Drake Dunsmore has 28 receptions as part of the Northwestern receiving corps.
When Kafka isn't running with the ball, Andy Fields, Stephen Simmons and Jacon Schmidt all have contributed to the ground game. Last week sophomore Scott Concannon had 74 yards rushing versus the Hoosiers.
Defensively, junior linebacker Quentin Davie leads the way in tackles (59), sacks (4) and forced fumbles (3). The Wildcats secondary also gets into the action, as safeties Brad Phillips and Brian Peters and cornerback Sherrick McManis are among the tackle leaders; McManus has three interceptions and has been credited with five pass break-ups.
The Wildcats also have a weapon in kicker Stefan Demos, a junior who has made 11 of 12 field goal attempts, with a long of 49 yards. He has made two walk-off game-winning kicks as well.
Penn State leads the series with Northwestern 9-3. and while the Lions won the last meeting 33-7 in 2006, in their last visit to Ryan Field in 2005, they fell behind the Wildcats 23-7 before Michael Robinson rallied PSU for a last minute 34-29 victory.
A prospect of another close call of that magnitude would be a hair-raising experience for the Lion faithful today, who are hoping for more of a treat than a trick on this visit.