by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Snippet of the Day: Facing the Masses
Pat Fitzgerald joked that his team would bring in six extra speakers to practice to replicate the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium — if only the Northwestern coach were kidding.
"Their students are awesome," Fitzgerald said. "How many students do they have? 60,000 or whatever? 50? It's huge, and they all come to the game. It's awesome. It's a great college environment. The fans are very knowledgable. Obviously, Pennsylvania football speaks for itself."
The Nittany Lions averaged 101,427 fans per game last year, down from 107,008 in 2009, but still highly impressive. Penn State has frequently been said to have the best student section in the country.
"It's just one of those great college environments, one of those great venues, and you look forward to the challenge of it," Fitzgerald said. "You have to focus, you have to execute and you have to not get caught up in the emotion of the game, so hopefully, our guys will do that."
This isn't the first time Northwestern has had to prepare for a big crowd. Given that Fitzgerald played in the Big Ten and has now coached the Wildcats through games at the Big House, the Horseshoe and Happy Valley, he has a pretty clear idea of how to prepare his team for the atmosphere they will face on Saturday. Fitzgerald has made frequent use of speakers during practice in past years, and this week was no different, as his team was serenaded with "Zombie Nation" repeatedly during practice.
"We prepare them every day," Fitzgerald said. "You guys come to practice. We've got music going every day. This will be a little louder. Probably about six more speakers."
The last time the Wildcats ventured into Happy Valley, they managed to silence the crowd for the bulk of the first half, making a crowd of 100,000-plus sound like a non-conference game circa five years ago at Ryan Field. But then they let it slip toward the end of the first half, and by the beginning of the second half, the crowd was pulsating and ready to go.
"I remember last time we were out there, it was a night game," senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "I remember walking in and it being all lit up and they pack their stadium. It was an interesting experience, but once they snapped the ball, I didn't really notice much after that, so it's just going to be like any other week. As entertaining as it is for our fans to travel up there and be a part of that atmosphere, it doesn't really do too much to how I'm going into the game and how I'm going to play so it doesn't affect me much."
Junior punter Brandon Williams added that the noise at Beaver Stadium didn't really hit him until the break between the third and the fourth quarter, when he was left on the field to await his upcoming punt, while 100,000-plus white-clad fans belted out "Hey! Baby" around him.
"That was a little bit of a different situation because usually we just run on and do our jobs and run off," Williams said, "but in that situation, we're standing out there waiting for the fourth quarter to start, and obviously between the third and the fourth quarter, it gets pretty crazy in there."
For Fitzgerald, the concern centers less on the overall environment at Beaver Stadium, and more on his Pennsylvania natives who will be coming home this weekend. The Northwestrern coach has always been aware of how that dynamic might juice up a few of his players — for better and for worse. This year's list includes safety Ibraheim Campbell of Philadelphia, defensive lineman Conner Mahoney of Malvern and defensive end Quentin Williams of Pittsburgh.
"We've got quite a few guys going home to play in front of their friends and family," Fitzgerald said, "and they're going to need to be focused and not get caught up in the moment and the environment, which I know they will."
As for whether Beaver Stadium will be any quieter for this Saturday's game, given the recent scandal surrounding the dismissal of Joe Paterno and the sex crimes committed by Jerry Sandusky, Fitzgerald said that the Nittany Nation will still pose quite the challenge for his team.
"We want to obviously lift the victims up in our thoughts and our prayers. We've moved forward and so (has Penn State)," Fitzgerald said. "You've got to tip your hat and be incredibly impressed with the job their coaching staff and their young men have done when it's come to playing the game of football. They play for each other and they play as one and they're play with great passion and physicality.
Stat of the Day: Swapping Identities
When Northwestern takes the field against Penn State on Saturday, it will be a vastly different encounter than in previous years. For a long time, the Nittany Lions were capable of dominating the line of scrimmage and pummeling an opponent through smashmouth football, while the Wildcats took to the air and tried to defeat their opponents with their impressive aerial attack. Just look at the last couple of years, when Dan Persa's spread offense squared off against Silas Redd and the rest of Penn State's nasty rushing attack. Well, that's no longer the storyline dominating this matchup. Instead, it's Northwestern that has relied overtly on its rushing game, whether it's Kain Colter sneaking out of the pocket or Venric Mark rushing the ball up the middle, and Penn State boasting the game's best pure passer, in Matt McGloin. Just consider last week when Kain Colter was the Big Ten's Co-Offensive Player of the Week despite just three pass attempts. Of course, even for the Wildcats, their success has always been dependent on running the ball. They averaged 226.5 rushing yards per game in their six wins last year, against just 115.3 rushing yards per game in their seven losses last year.