STATE COLLEGE, Pa. | Quentin Williams tunes out the whispers he hears from Northwestern skeptics.
Beat Penn State on the road today and the No. 24 Wildcats might take another step toward quieting the doubters and proving their 5-0 record is no fluke. Buoyed by its strong start, Northwestern (1-0 Big Ten) is supremely confident it can roll into Beaver Stadium and go toe-to-toe with surging Penn State (3-2, 1-0).
"I wasn't a big believer in wanting to do what people think you can't do," said Williams, a senior defensive end and Pittsburgh native returning to his home state today.
Back in the Top 25 for the first time since 2008, the Wildcats are off to their third 5-0 start in the last five years. If coach Pat Fitzgerald's crew could get just one more win, they'll reach an even more impressive milestone for the program — the first 6-0 start in five decades.
Even linebacker David Nwabuisi wasn't sure initially how this year's start rated in the Northwestern record books.
"This is the first time we've been 5-0 ... Maybe it's the first time," he said this week, trailing off a couple times as looked over at school officials for help.
"So, you know, the 'hay is not in the barn,' coach Fitz always says," Nwabuisi added. "We're going to get the best out of every team, week in and week out, especially now that we're ranked. We have a big target on our backs."
Nice save, David.
Among the Wildcats, junior Kain Colter might be drawing the most attention from Linebacker U., so long as they figure out where he's lined up.
He's a quarterback. He's a receiver. He can create big plays with his feet dashing out of the backfield. You name it.
Colter and Northwestern's exhausting spread offense might be the toughest challenge yet for Penn State, an opportunistic defense that has 11 forced turnovers. The jack-of-all-trades had nearly 300 all-purpose yards and rushed for four scores in last week's 44-29 win over Indiana.
"What we've had to do this week is identify where he is (on the field) and what they've done," Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "And at the same time, as his role has expanded, trying to figure out the next step. There is going to be a next step ... it's just a matter of figuring out what it is."
Penn State has momentum in the series, having won the last five matchups — though technically, those wins have been vacated due to NCAA sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Penalties aside, the Nittany Lions haven't had trouble getting on the board against Northwestern after having scored at least 33 points in each of the last five wins. The last two victories have come following second-half surges.
This year, Penn State enters the Northwestern game coming off an emotional 35-7 win over Illinois, but coach Bill O'Brien's players have said there won't be a letdown for a homecoming weekend contest against a ranked opponent.
"We'll be ready. We'll motivate ourselves," said quarterback Matt McGloin, the Big Ten's leading passer (243 yards per game). "Nothing would be better than to give them their first loss."
Playing mistake-free football and dictating tempo on offense might be especially critical this week for Penn State to keep the ball out of Colter's hands. That would allow Roof's troops to stay fresher to try and contain a Wildcats attack averaging 466 yards per game — including a 704-yard outburst against the Hoosiers.
Red zone defense is another area to watch. Penn State's defense is the stingiest inside the 20 in the Big Ten (61 percent conversion rate, six touchdowns), while Northwestern is the making the most out of its red-zone opportunities (92 percent, 13 touchdowns).
After two straight losses to open the season, Penn State has reeled off three straight victories in part because of the defense's incremental improvement adjusting to a tweaked playbook. Roof spiced up the Nittany Lions' 4-3 schemes to make it more aggressive.
Just like Northwestern, there are still questions about the quality of the Nittany Lions' wins. While providing a nice morale boost, the three wins have come against Navy, Temple and Illinois, a crop that is a combined 4-8.
Opponents' records aren't that much better for the undefeated Wildcats, whose five wins have come against teams who are a combined 6-14.
"I think everybody knows how important this game is," said Penn State junior linebacker Glenn Carson, a two-year starter. "I've been here two years, and I know a big-game feel.
"This is a must-win."
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