Nittany Line: Lions set sights on undefeated Northwestern

Venric Mark leads Northwestern's potent ground attack, averaging 107.6 yards per game.
Venric Mark leads Northwestern's potent ground attack, averaging 107.6 yards per game. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 05, 2012

STATE COLLEGE - The Nittany Lions are back on the map.

After starting their first post-sanctions season with two bitter losses, they have won three in a row, all comfortably.

And that's well-timed for coach Bill O'Brien and company as the No. 24 Northwestern Wildcats (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) roll into town for a homecoming week battle at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

"We're definitely on a momentum roll here," linebacker Glenn Carson said of Penn State's winning streak. "The thing is, I think the two losses in the beginning of the season are the thing that's helping us the most. I think it's keeping us hungry. Although we have a three-win streak here, we're still hungry, we're still upset about those two losses in the beginning."

Season-opening losses to Ohio and Virginia were both games Penn State (3-2, 1-0) easily could have won, and were lost by a combined 11 points. Meanwhile, its wins against Navy, Temple and Illinois were by a combined 66 points.

After a 35-7 victory at Illinois last weekend, quarterback Matt McGloin thought thought the final margin could have been larger.

"We still think about those two losses in the sense that we think we should have won those games," Carson said. "We're upset about it, and we're trying to make up for it."

Beating Northwestern certainly would help. Penn State has not defeated a ranked opponent at home since Michigan State in 2008, and is 0-4 against ranked teams at home since then. A win also would make Penn State 2-0 in conference play heading into a bye week before playing Iowa on the road in prime time and Ohio State at home in the annual "White House" game.

To beat Northwestern, Penn State will have to stop its running game, the ninth best in America with 255.8 yards per game. Running back Venric Mark and quarterback/wide receiver Kain Colter are fourth and ninth, respectively, in the conference in rushing yards per game (107.6 and 74.2). The Lions' defense also will have to adjust to the Wildcats' two-quarterback system, as both Colter (369 passing yards, two touchdowns) and Trevor Siemian (672, one) will see the field.

O'Brien stressed the importance of communication on the field to slow the Northwestern attack.

"Northwestern coming in here is the best team that we have faced," O'Brien said. " has done an excellent job there of just putting an excellent team together, an undefeated team. We have got a huge challenge ahead of us on Saturday."

Sophomore running back Bill Belton termed this a must-win game. With a victory, those two season-opening losses will appear farther in the rearview mirror.

"They're 5-0. It's our homecoming. What would be better for us than to go out there and give them their first loss?" McGloin said.

AGENDA

Who: No. 24 Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) at Penn State (3-2, 1-0)

When: Saturday, noon

Where: Beaver Stadium,

University Park

TV: ESPN

Radio: WFIL (560-AM), WNTP (990-AM)

Three things to watch

1. Considering its schedule, Northwestern probably isn't among the best of the undefeated teams in the nation. Its five wins have come against Syracuse, Vanderbilt, South Dakota (an FCS team), Minnesota and Indiana. Northwestern's combined margin of victory over the four BCS teams in that bunch is 35 points, and three of those four games were played at home. To put that number in perspective, Penn State beat Illinois by 28 on the road. The combined record of the five teams the Wildcats have played is 6-14. So don't expect Northwestern to play anywhere near the caliber of a 5-0 team like Alabama.

2. There's something about playing the Wildcats that benefits quarterback Matt McGloin. In his last two games against Northwestern, the redshirt senior is a combined 35-for-55 for 417 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Both games were wins, including the 2010 comeback that was then Joe Paterno's 400th victory. McGloin currently leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 243.3.

3. It would be too easy to watch for Michael Mauti's dominance, so how about fellow linebacker Gerald Hodges? Mauti's incredible play has made it easy to forget that Penn State has another elite linebacker in Hodges, who has 39 tackles and an interception. Hodges, a 6-2, 237-pound Paulsboro, N.J., native, won back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards last season, one coming after a 34-24 win at Northwestern.

Prediction

Penn State has had a tougher schedule than Northwestern and has dominated it more thoroughly than the Wildcats have dominated theirs. Penn State, a three-point favorite, wins, 23-9.

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