Penn State football: Lions face ranked opponent as Wildcats come to town

gciprian@centredaily.comOctober 6, 2012 

That disdain privately motivating some Penn State players last week has subsided.

Nobody from Northwestern made a blatant attempt to poach Penn State's roster this past summer. Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats' seventh-year coach, keeps his program away from off-the-field spats involving Big Ten schools.

So this doesn't possess the same theatrics as last week's trip to Illinois.

But this might be bigger.

Penn State (3-2) gets its first crack at a ranked opponent when No. 24 Northwestern (5-0) visits Beaver Stadium today.

The game represents the centerpiece of Penn State's homecoming activities and arrives at a crucial point in the schedule. The Nittany Lions, who have won three straight games, are off next week, which gives them two weeks to ponder today's events.

“We'll be ready,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “They're 5-0, it's homecoming and nothing would be better than to give them their first loss. We have a ton of respect for them and we have a ton of respect for their coaches. We know what type of team they are, and we know what type of team we are.”

Northwestern runs a spread offense, experiences few blocking and tackling gaffes and features athletic valedictorians on both sides. Preparing for the Wildcats' offense is tricky because quarterback Kain Colter can throw, run and catch. The junior exceeded 100 rushing and receiving yards in last week's 44-29 victory over Indiana. Only those wearing purple know how he will be used today.

“His statistics speak for themselves,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “He's a pure athlete. He makes plays on the field. We have to make sure our assignments are right to stop their offense.”

Stopping all facets of Northwestern's offense might be impossible. They ding opponents for 466.6 yards per game. If it weren't for West Virginia and Baylor knocking down 3-pointers and 18-footers in their 70-63 shootout last weekend, the Wildcats might be the talk of offensive savants. Northwestern, after all, ran 93 offensive plays and collected a school-record 704 offensive yards against Indiana.

“You have to be very sharp, focused outside on defense and then you have to communicate very well,” Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. “They are going to try to run 90 to 100 plays in the game. It's about communication and getting lined up and understanding who is in the game for them.”

Penn State's defense has yielded little since wilting in the second half of a season-opening loss to Ohio University, another Midwest team thriving behind a spread offense. None of the Nittany Lions' past four opponents eclipsed 17 points.

A few personnel shifts such as sophomore Adrian Amos flipping between corner and safety and Mike Hull becoming a third-down linebacker are helping slow opponents.

The Nittany Lions haven't played a game where both teams scored 20 points. The throwback scores might end today.

An improving ground game, turnover-free performances and sound offensive line plays are reasons Penn State is averaging 31 points per game during the winning streak. The Nittany Lions' success might hinge on McGloin's ability to connect with his receivers. The Wildcats allow a conference-low 90 rushing and conference-high 289 passing yards per game.

“We have to play tough, hard-nosed football,” McGloin said. “They do what they are supposed to do. We have to play our best and we can't make mistakes. We have to be smart with the football because they aren't going to hurt themselves on defense.”

One thing is certain: O'Brien will look Fitzgerald in the eyes when they shake hands.

Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.

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