Penn State got the job done last week in their first BIG 10 game under Bill O'Brien with a dominating 35-7 victory over the Illini. This week, The Nittany Lions will face a much more talented opponent in Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 B1G). The Wildcats are the first ranked opponent PSU has faced this season and they also boast one of the most dynamic offenses in the country.
Northwestern is coming into Beaver Stadium this afternoon (12:01 p.m. ET ESPN) rolling, rushing for 256 yards per game and also generating 466 yards of total offense per contest. The Penn State defense has played pretty well in 2012, but they certainly have their work cut out for them.
"Well, they are doing a lot of things right," said O'Brien. "They do a nice job with their tempo. They play very fast. They do a great job of spreading you out and making you make plays in space. They are an excellent football team, well coached and we have got a big, big challenge this week."
A big part of the Wildcats' offense is their do it all quarterback, Kain Colter. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald will move Colter around a lot and wherever he is on the field he is certainly a threat. Colter has rushed for over 370 yards on the year for six scores while passing for 369 yards and two touchdowns. He shares the passing responsibilities with Trevor Siemian (58-84, 672 yds.) and will also split out to the slot or wide receiver position.
"That's a guy that you have to understand on every single snap where he is," said O'Brien. "He is a guy that they are doing a great job with, Northwestern, of putting him in position to make plays. Obviously he's 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. In order to play quarterback and receiver in the same game, you have to be a very smart, instinctive football player. He is a huge challenge for us on Saturday, just like the whole team, Northwestern, coming in here is the best team that we have faced."
It will be essential for the Nittany Lions to contain Colter, but one thing PSU must do is stop the Wildcats on third down. In Penn State's first game of the season, where they lost to Ohio 24-14, the PSU "D" faltered on third down in the second half. Ohio and Northwestern are very similar offensively, both having athletic quarterbacks that can run the football, so it will be extremely neccesary for the Nittany Lions to halt the Wildcats in third down situations.
"Really when you look at the whole year, the defense has played pretty well," said O'Brien. "I would say if you look at the first two games, if the offense had either kept drives alive by converting on third down or scoring more points, I would say all five games, the defense has played very well. There's a lot of guys on this defense that really understand their role and are fun to be around."
One of those players that Coach O'Brien has been talking about as far as understanding their role has been Mike Mauti. Mauti has been a wrecking ball this season and is looking great after sustaining an ACL injury last season. The senior made his presence felt last week against Illinois, grabbing two interceptions, returning one of those picks for a school-record 99 yards. Mauti also leads the team in tackles with 48 on the year and has won the BIG 10 Defensive Player of the Week award the last two weeks.
"The first time I met Mike Mauti was the night that basically I was hired here, or the day of the press conference, that night I had a team meeting," said O'Brien. "He came right up to me after the meeting and had a lot of questions about our strength and conditioning program, so I knew right away that he was a passionate football player. I could tell right away that football was very important to Michael."
The Penn State offense will have some opportunities to make big plays in the passing game this week against the Wildcats. Although, Northwestern is stubborn when it comes to defending the run, only giving up 90 yards per game, they have been allowing 289 yards per contest through the air. A statistic that certainly bodes well for Matt McGloin (101-170-1,217-10TD) and his top target Allen Robinson (32-439-5TD). McGloin has been doing a pretty good job of running Bill O'Brien's offense this season and he must play well against the Wildcats. It's interesting to see how McGloin will do against a ranked opponent, considering in the past he has not played well in these type of situations.
Something the Nittany Lions have a distinct disadvantage in is the special teams game. Penn State does not have a reliable kicker and in games like these a win or a loss could certainly come down to a field goal. Penn State doesn't really have that luxury. With the way Northwestern plays, one could see the Penn State defense wear as the game goes on and the offense could be put in tough spots throughout the day as well. Having a kicking game could bail a team out in those scenarios. Penn State's lack of a kicking game could really come back to haunt them against the Wildcats.
A win against Northwestern would be huge for the goals Bill O'Brien and his staff have laid out for the future of the Penn State football program. A loss doesn't mean Nittany Lions faithful should panic, either. This roller coaster ride has just begun and much like anything else, there will be ups and downs along the way.