The 24th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats are back on the road for the first time since their season opener, as they visit Beaver Stadium for a Big Ten clash with the resurgent Penn State Nittany Lions.
Northwestern is off to a 5-0 start for the third time in the last five years under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats are coming off a dominant offensive performance in last week's 44-29 triumph over Indiana. A win today would give the team its first 6-0 start since 1962, which was also the last year that NU was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
"We just have to keep watching film, keep working hard because every week the other team is going to be bringing it," senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said during the team's weekly press conference. "We're going to get the best of every team week in, week out, especially now that we're ranked we've got a big target on our backs."
Penn State began the season 0-2 after spoiling fourth-quarter leads against Ohio University and Virginia. However, the Nittany Lions have since righted the ship with three straight wins. Last week, they opened their Big Ten slate with a lopsided 35-7 road win at Illinois.
The Nittany Lions lead the all-time series, 4-3 although they have had to erase a halftime deficit to win each of the last three meetings. They had eight additional wins that were vacated due to NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. These teams are not scheduled to meet again until at least 2017.
The Wildcats have shifted to a spread offense in recent years, but this season they have inflicted some major damage with the running game, which ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally (255.8 ypg). Last week against Indiana, they racked up a school-record 704 yards of total offense, which included 394 yards (6.8 ypc) and five touchdowns on the ground. Kain Colter has done a little bit of everything, moving around between quarterback, running back and receiver. Against the Hoosiers, he switched between quarterback and wideout, and put up impressive numbers. Colter caught nine passes for 131 yards, and he also ran 14 times for 161 yards (11.5 ypc) and four TDs to earn co-offensive player of the week honors in the Big Ten. Junior running back Venric Mark added a career-high 139 rushing yards, the third time in the last four games he has gone over the century mark.
Last year, the Northwestern defense posted 10 quarters of shutout football in 13 games. Through only five games this year, the defense has already notched seven scoreless quarters, including the first half in each of the last two contests. In four other quarters, NW has held the opposition to only a field goal. Last week, Indiana did not get on the scoreboard until the 9:24 mark of the third quarter after the Wildcats had already built a 27-0 lead. The Wildcats came up with big stops in key situations, holding IU to 5-of-15 on third down and allowing the Hoosiers to score only twice in four trips inside the red zone. NW has been rock-solid against the run, as the team leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in run defense (90.0 ypg).
Penn State senior quarterback Matt McGloin has shown marked improvement from last season, when he threw for 1,571 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. Through five games this season, McGloin has thrown for 1,217 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. He has also scored four rushing TDs over the last two contests, including two against Illinois last week. Behind McGloin, the Nittany Lions boast the No. 3 passing offense in the Big Ten (245.8 ypg). More importantly, they have committed only one turnover in the last four games. Sophomore running back Zach Zwinak has gotten more involved in recent weeks, and he notched 100 yards and two TDs on 19 carries last week.
Senior linebacker Michael Mauti snatched two interceptions against Illinois, returning one a school-record 99 yards. That pick prevented the Fighting Illini from becoming the first team to score a touchdown against Penn State in the first half this season. For his efforts, Mauti was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in three games. He accounted for two of the Nittany Lions' three takeaways last week, pushing their total to 11 over the last four contests. They also held Illinois nearly 20 points below its season average.
Northwestern has fared rather well on the road, posting a 15-8 record in true road games since 2008. Still, the Wildcats aren't taking Penn State lightly.
"They do a great job," coach Fitzgerald said of the Nittany Lions. "They're fast, they're physical. Their kids are playing with an attitude. They're playing for each other. They're playing for the university. It's impressive to watch what they're doing."