Without Baylor and West Virginia’s 133-point, 1,507-yard offensive outburst last Saturday, Bill O’Brien said he believes there would be more attention surrounding his team’s next opponent.
Northwestern posted a staggering 704 yards offensively against Indiana last week in the team’s 44-29 win. Boasting a 5-0 record and a No. 24 ranking in the AP poll, Northwestern and its high-powered offense — which averages 466.6 yards per game — visits Beaver Stadium this Saturday.
“If not for the Baylor-West Virginia game, everyone would be talking about Northwestern gaining 700 yards in their game,” O’Brien said. “So they are an excellent football team, well-coached and we have got a big, big challenge this week.”
O’Brien went on to call Northwestern the Penn State’s best opponent to date and Saturday will mark his first career test against a ranked foe as a head coach.
While O’Brien was quick to point out many strong aspects of Northwestern’s team, Pat Fitzgerald, the coach opposite of him this weekend, did the same at his weekly press conference. Fitzgerald said Penn State’s defense is the best his team will have seen so far this season.
“Coach O’Brien and his staff are doing a terrific job, and they present a lot of schematic challenges,” Fitzgerald said. “And we have to go against [defensive coordinator] Ted Roof, [who] in the past has gotten after us. He does a great job with his defense. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
The last time Northwestern faced a defense coached by Roof was in the 2010 Outback Bowl. Roof was the defensive coordinator at Auburn at the time, when the team won a 38-35 thriller over Fitzgerald and the Wildcats on New Year’s Day.
The Wildcats have had other quick starts in the past, as they also opened the 2010 campaign with five straight victories. But things turned sour in Evanston, Ill. two seasons ago when Northwestern lost six of its final eight games to finish just one game above the .500 mark.
So, while the 5-0 start and top-25 ranking are something positive for Northwestern, players know tides can turn in a hurry once the calendar flips to October.
“We got to keep watching film, keep working hard, because every week other teams are going to be bringing it,” Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “We’re going to get the best from every team week in and week out, especially now that we’re ranked.”
While Ohio State has the Big Ten’s only other undefeated record at this point and Northwestern has wins over schools from the Big East, SEC and ACC, the team’s record may be a little bit misleading.
The Wildcats’ five opponents (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana) have a combined record of 6-14 with those six wins coming against Stony Brook, Presbyterian, Maine, Colgate, Indiana State and Massachusetts.
Regardless of how its competition has fared, Northwestern has avoided chalking one up in the “L” column this year, and as mentioned, the team has done it with a well-oiled offense. The Wildcats average 33.8 points per game and have a decently-balanced attack as they have accumulated 1,279 rushing yards and 1,054 passing yards this season.
“They do a nice job with their tempo. They play very fast,” O’Brien said. “They do a great job of spreading you out and making you make plays in space.”
While Northwestern is running the ball well on offense, defensively the team is stopping opponents on the ground. Though the defense has been shaky against the pass, teams are averaging just 90 rushing yards per game against Northwestern, the fewest in the Big Ten. Opposing teams have averaged just 3.3 yards per rush against the Wildcats, and linebacker Damien Proby said he thinks the team’s closeness has aided in its undefeated start.
“It’s just more of a family atmosphere here,” Proby said. “This is one of the closest teams that we’ve had in my time being here. We’re a true brotherhood here, and we’re striving forward.”
In his time as Northwestern’s head coach, Fitzgerald has never had a win against Penn State in four tries, two of which came in Beaver Stadium. The 37-year old said he knows Saturday is going to put his team to the test, and not just the atmosphere, but the opponent as well.
“It’s going to be a very difficult challenge for us going on the road in what I think is one of the best environments in college football,” Fitzgerald said. “With a program, to me, that has really done a terrific job coming together, playing very physical, very efficient football, playing I think, as hot as anyone in the country right now.”