Earlier this week Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien said No. 24 Northwestern will bring the best offense his team has seen all season. He may be right, although Ohio is averaging just about six more yards per game than the 5-0 Wildcats, who look to score their first victory in Beaver Stadium since 2004, and just their second win at Penn State since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993 (Noon / ESPN).
So what is it about these Wildcats that has O’Brien so impressed?
It starts, as usual, with the quarterback Kain Colter. The junior from Denver was named co-offensive player of the week in the Big Ten last week, but wasn’t praised for his passing production (1-for-3 for 2 yards and an interception). Instead Colter did some damage on the ground with 161 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns and nine receptions for 131 yards, while QB Trevor Siemian delivered him the ball. Colter’s on offense gives Northwestern offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike McCall some options to play with. That is not a fact that escapes O’Brien, who looks to become the fifth coach in the conference to win the first two Big Ten games of his career.
“Well, that's a guy that you have to understand on every single snap where he is,” O’Brien said this week. “Here is a guy that they are doing a great job with of putting him in position to make plays. Obviously a quarterback, but then when they move him to wide receiver, with his skill set, he's quick. He's got good ball skills and a very bright guy obviously.
Of course, Northwestern also has a talented coaching staff led by former Northwestern standout linebacker Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has a knack for getting players unlike those who go to Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State but who generally hold their own nonetheless.
Penn State has a size advantage, as well with depth and stamina, but that has not stopped Northwestern from giving Penn State some big scares in recent seasons.
The last time Northwestern visited Beaver Stadium, two seasons ago, the Wildcats built a 21-0 lead with 56 seconds to play before the half. But Matt McGloin put up 225 passing yards and four touchdowns, Evan Royster and Silas Redd each ran for 130+ yards and Penn State muscled their way back for a wild victory with 35 unanswered points. The thrill of victory was sweet enough, but that was also the 400th career win for former head coach Joe Paterno.
Last season saw Penn State make the trip to Evanston, Ill., Paterno made history again. Penn State and Northwestern exchanged blows in a 27-24 first half, but it was a different story in the second, when the defense put the clamps down on Northwestern’s offense, outscoring the home team 7-0 to pull away with the win that tied Paterno for the Division 1 career wins mark with Eddie Robinson. Paterno would break the record the following week at home against Illinois before all Hell broke lose on the campus and, well, you know the story.
There is not nearly the kind of college football history resting on this game, with O’Brien looking for his fourth career victory and Fitzgerald looking for his 46th career win.
So here we are, about a year later and Northwestern is enjoying some nice publicity with a 5-0 record, although their opponents have combined for just one win against FBS competition. To be fair, Penn State’s victories have come against teams with a combined one FBS win as well. But the Wildcats have cracked the Top 25 and now they head on the road for the toughest game of their season to date. As O’Brien said, Northwestern has the best offense Penn State has seen so far. But Penn State also has the best defense Northwestern has seen so far. O’Brien knows that his counterpart, Fitzgerald, will have his Wildcats prepared for the challenge.
“Pat's done an excellent job there of just putting an excellent team together, an undefeated team,” O’Brien said. “We have got a huge challenge ahead of us on Saturday.”
The key for Penn State will be to create problems for Colter, wherever he may be lining up on the field. Northwestern lacks a lethal passing game and has piled up some good numbers on the ground. Fortunately for Penn State, when teams have to rely on the run so much they tend to have an edge with a defense led by Michael Mauti that is so good at tracking down the football on the ground.
Penn State enters this week 46th against the run, allowing an average of 129.80 rushing yards per game. That average is inflated slightly by allowing run heavy Navy, who accumulated 255 rush yards. Ohio was able to put together 175 rushing yards in week one and Temple put up 113 rushing yards a couple of weeks ago. Overall, though Penn State has seen steady improvement on both sides of the football on a weekly basis, one of the few teams around the country that can probably say that.
Against Northwestern though, in front of what could be a solid homecoming crowd, it will be necessary to stay sharp early on and keep chugging away. That is because Northwestern may be outmatched in physicality, but they will match anyone head-to-head with mental toughness.
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