Heading into its bye week, Penn State's pursuit of Joe Paterno's 400th career win seemed a daunting task for the second half of this season.
The Nittany Lions had dropped two straight, including a Homecoming loss to Illinois, and were also riddled with injuries, especially on defense. At 3-3, getting the three more victories needed for the magic number appeared to be a challenge.
PSU has turned things around since its bye, picking up triumphs over Minnesota and Michigan to improve to 5-3 and within one win of Paterno's 400th Northwestern headed to Happy Valley this afternoon.
Today's game has a 3:36 p.m. kickoff and will be televised nationally by ABC/ESPN2.
The potential for Paterno reaching the milestone is only one of the themes running through this contest.
A PSU win would make Paterno the first Division I (BCS) coach to reach that elite circle. The two other NCAA coaches who have hit the 400 plateau are John Gagliardi, who is still coaching at Division III St. John's (Minnesota) and has 476 wins in 62 seasons, and the late Eddie Robinson, who had 408 in 56 years at Grambling.
Paterno downplayed the 400 win angle during his weekly press conference.
"I've been around for enough wins," he said at one point after several attempts were made to get him to comment on it. He did offer a little more insight later, noting that he has been around long enough to have piled up some wins during his 45 years on the Beaver Stadium sideline. He also said that it would be something to reflect on at a later time.
Regardless of when it happens, 400 win is achievement that happens rarely and will take a lifetime for others to reach. In today's big-time college coaching climate, who knows if it will ever happen again?
Another theme has been the rejuvenated Lion offense. Granted, PSU has faced two of the weaker defenses in the Big Ten the past two weeks in the Golden Gophers and Wolverines, but with the Lion defense giving up plenty of points and yards (Michigan QB Denard Robinson ran for 191 yards and 3 TDs and passed for 190 and a TD), the offense was up to the task.
The emergence of former walk-on QB Matt McGloin has become a storyline. The West Scranton product took over after Rob Bolden suffered an apparent concussion against Minnesota. While Bolden was cleared to play against Michigan, McGloin got the start (a first for a walk-on QB at PSU) and completed 17 of 28 passes for 250 yards, throwing for one TD and running for another.
Trying to diffuse a potential QB controversy, Paterno said both Bolden and McGloin would compete this week, and they are listed as co-starters on the PSU depth chart. Certainly, that gave Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald something else to think about in the Wildcats' preparations.
Reportedly, Bolden got to take snaps with the first team at practice. Paterno didn't commit to either QB during his radio show Thursday, although he suggested the Lions would look to use one instead of two QBs.
McGloin has been gracious during his rise, noting after the Minnesota game that the Lions were still Bolden's team.
The Lion attack has also gotten a boost from its rejuvenated ground game. Evan Royster finally became PSU's all-time leading rusher after running for 150 yards on a career-high 29 carries and scoring 2 TDs against Michigan. Royster passed Curt Warner and now has 3,518 to top the list, giving the "Blue Royster Cult" reason to cheer.
Northwestern (6-2) also has a Keystone State story of its own in QB Dan Persa.
The Bethlehem Liberty signcaller has completed 174 of 234 passes for 2,062 yards and 12 TDs against just three interceptions. He is also the Wildcats' leading rusher with 360 yards and 6 TDs, followed by freshman Mike Trumpy's 307 yards rushing.
"I know we looked at him (Persa) and for some reason or another, maybe we decided there was somebody else around that would be a little better, I don't know," said Paterno, when asked this week if PSU had recruited Persa.. "But he certainly has become one of the better quarterbacks, I think, in the country.
"He's a good student, good kid, hard worker. He's made some big plays for Northwestern and has been a big difference for them in a lot of games."
Persa, who left last week's 20-17 Northwestern win over Indiana with a concussion, is expected to play today.
Northwestern's top target is junior Jeremy Ebert, who leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game and has caught 43 passes for 678 yards and 7 TDs.
Defensively, junior safety Brian Peters leads the Wildcats with 52 tackles, and junior cornerback Jordan Mabin has broken up eight passes. Nate Williams and Quentin Davis lead the linebackers. The defensive front is anchored by junior Vince Browne, who has six sacks.
The Wildcats own wins against Indiana, Vanderbilt (23-21), Illinois State (37-3), Rice (30-13), Central Michigan (30-25) and Minnesota (29-28). Their losses have come against Purdue (20-17) and Michigan State (35-27).
Penn State leads the series 10-3 and has won the last three in a row, including 34-13 last year in Evanston. This is the first time the Wildcats are visiting Beaver Stadium since 2006. The oddsmakers have PSU listed as a six-point favorite.
While the schools will be in different divisions when the Big Ten realigns next year, PSU and Northwestern are scheduled to meet the next two seasons.
NITTANY LINES - Kicker Collin Wagner was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for the second time this season. Against Michigan, the Lou Groza Award semifinalist connected on a pair of field goals and also rushed seven yards for a game-sealing first down on a fake field goal try in the fourth quarter ... Northwestern is 8-2 in its last 10 Big Ten road games. The win in Bloomingtown last week made the Wildcats bowl-eligible for the fourth straight season ... the PSU receiving corps is also beginning to warm up. Derek Moye, who leads the Lions with 28 receptions, and Graham Zug each had three catches last week. Brett Brackett has 27 receptions and Devon Smith has 22 ... linebacker Michael Mauti had a career-high 10 tackles last week and has 49 stops for the season, second to LB Chris Colasanti's 72 ... converted WR Chaz Powell is now at right cornerback and is listed as co-starter with Stephon Morris, who didn't play much against Michigan ... defensive end Jack Crawford, who has been sidelined with a foot injury, is listed as probable for today, as is safety Andrew Dailey (neck and shoulder) and guard Johnnie Trotman (leg), as well as Bolden ... 16 Lions who would have been on the two-deep depth chart have missed time due to injuries this season ... with injuries to tight ends Andrew Szczerba and Gary Gilliam, tackle Nate Cadogen has been shifted there behind freshman Kevin Haplea ... freshman Silas Redd is now the team's second leading rusher behind Royster with 197 yards (5.6 per carry) ... The Penn State football team is among the top 10 percent nationally and owns the Big Ten Conference's No. 2 Graduation Success Rate (GSR). PSU gridders from 2000-03 earned a Graduation Success Rate of 84 percent, tied for No. 12 among the nation's 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions. Penn State's 84 percent GSR was significantly higher than the 67 percent FBS average and was second to Northwestern (95) among Big Ten Conference institutions, according to the NCAA. In addition, three members of this year's squad have been selected to the ESPN Academic All-District Football Team: senior guard Stefen Wisniewski, a two-time ESPN Academic All-American; senior linebacker Chris Colasanti and redshirt sophomore defensive end Pete Massaro ... PSU's annual Border War with Ohio State at Columbus next Saturday will be a 3:30 p.m. kickoff with a regional telecast by ABC. It will air nationally on ESPN outside the ABC coverage area.