Northwestern-Penn St. Preview
Beginning a season with five straight wins actually hasn't been that uncommon for Northwestern, which got there for the third time in five years last weekend thanks to a record-setting offensive performance.
A 6-0 start has been a bit harder to come by.
The 24th-ranked Wildcats look to record their best start in 50 years Saturday in Happy Valley against a Penn State team that seems to have found its footing after a shaky beginning to the Bill O'Brien era.
Northwestern delivered some impressive offensive efforts in its first four victories, but those paled in comparison to its Big Ten opener. The Wildcats set a school record with 704 yards of total offense in a 44-29 win over Indiana behind a quarterback who's turned into a triple threat.
Kain Kolter did little of his work in the pocket against the Hoosiers, however. The junior attempted only three passes but ran 14 times for 161 yards and caught nine passes for 131 yards.
"This was kind of Chapter 1 of what we plan to do," coach Pat Fitzgerald promised. "We believe in Kain as a thrower - trust me on that."
Fitzgerald might not need to have Kolter under center much if Trevor Siemian continues to play like he did against Indiana. The sophomore threw for 308 yards and has completed 69.0 percent of his passes - third in the conference.
Hanging those kind of offensive numbers on Penn State (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) figures to be a considerably bigger challenge. The Nittany Lions have won three straight by double digits, turning in their best game to date by thrashing Illinois 35-7 last Saturday in Champaign.
"These games are not easy, this conference is tough, so anytime you can get off on the right foot in the Big Ten that's a big deal," O'Brien said.
Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi knows his team's attempt to go 6-0 for the first time since 1962 won't be easy.
"I've tried to remind my teammates this isn't the first time we've been 5-0," Nwabuisi said. "So the hay's not in the barn, as Coach Fitz always says. Just because we have this ranking now doesn't mean that Penn State's going to go, 'Well, we don't get to play Northwestern this week because they're ranked now and get an automatic win.'"
Northwestern turned it over three times against Indiana, and such carelessness may prove more costly against the Nittany Lions. After posting a minus-three turnover margin in losing to Ohio, Penn State has a plus-10 differential in the past four contests - giving it away only once.
"(This is) a program that has done a terrific job coming together and playing physical, very efficient football, (and) is playing as hot as anybody in the country right now," Fitzgerald said.
Getting off the field on third downs has been the key to the Nittany Lions' surge. Penn State allowed Ohio and Virginia to convert 22 of 36 (61.1 percent) third downs, but has held its past three opponents to 11 of 42 (26.2).
The defense has been led by linebacker Michael Mauti, who intercepted two passes against the Illini and earned Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for the second time in three games.
Penn State's bowl ineligibility has made the senior put a greater significance on each regular-season game.
"We only have a fixed number of games, so we're going to be just as rowdy and just as jacked up for every game," Mauti said.
Northwestern has lost five straight to Penn State - giving up at least 33 points in each game - and it could have trouble stopping that trend if it can't shore up its secondary.
The Wildcats are 109th in the nation in pass defense (289.0 yards per game), and they've struggled to contain Matt McGloin before. The senior quarterback has thrown six touchdowns without an interception, taking only one sack, in beating Northwestern the past two seasons.