by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Each week, InsideNU will bring you an opponent’s take on the matchup ahead in the interest of providing a wider perspective on each game. With the Wildcats traveling to State College for their first Big Ten road test, The Altoona Mirror's Cory Giger, who provides excellent coverage and commentary for all things Nittany Lions, agreed to weigh in on this year's Penn State team and provide a window into coach Bill O'Brien's first year on campus. In the interest of informing you about the Penn State football team, its players and strong/weak points, none of the following addresses the national wave of negative publicity that hovered (and continues to hover) over the program. Whether or not that satisfies your impetus for reading this Q&A, we hope you enjoy Giger's insight on the Wildcats' toughest opponent to date. Follow him on twitter @CoryGiger.
What's the biggest change you've noticed since Bill O'Brien took over as head coach? Has his previous coaching experience provided Penn State with an NFL-like schematic dynamic?
CG: Without question the biggest change is the aggressive approach on offense. Things had really gotten stale for most of the past decade with PSU's predictable, conservative offense, but O'Brien has implemented a complex, modern approach in the passing game that is such a breath of fresh air. O'Brien spent the past few years working with one of the great quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady, and he has implemented a Patriots-style offense at PSU, one that gives the quarterback great responsibility getting into the right play at the line of scrimmage, throwing more to receivers in space and letting them run after the catch and utilizing the tight ends more, which is something he certainly learned in New England.
Of the nine players who transferred, which has been the biggest loss so far and why?
CG: Silas Redd might be the biggest star, but kicker Anthony Fera has really been missed. He handled punting and place-kicking last year, and PSU has struggled in both areas this season. The Lions lost at Virginia in large part because the kicker missed four field goals and a PAT, which Fera never would have done. Then again, Fera is injured and hasn't played yet at Texas, so had he stayed at PSU, the Lions very well might be in the same situation anyway.
After starting out 0-2, with losses to Ohio and Virginia, Penn State has won three straight. Did something click after a bad start, or was it more a function of the schedule lightening up?
CG: The schedule definitely got easier. Navy is not a good team, and PSU was able to build some confidence by winning that first game. Temple has been an improving program in recent years, but this year's team is not as good as years past. Also, neither Navy nor Temple can throw the ball at all, so they both were good matchups for PSU, which has an unproven secondary. Beating Illinois was a good sign because those are at least Big Ten athletes, but the Illini self-destructed early in that game with turnovers and penalties. The Lions have yet to beat a good team which is why this game against Northwestern is such a good test.
In just four games this season, quarterback Matt McGloin has amassed 1,217 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions, plus four rushing touchdowns. Did something click for him this offseason? How has he taken to O'Brien's coaching and the offensive tweaks he's implemented?
CG: O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher have done a terrific job with McGloin, and he is definitely suited for this offense. He's a smart kid who can read defenses at the line of scrimmage, so he's able to call the right play. He also does well with the 8-12 yard passes that this offense relies on -- the same thing the Patriots rely on -- so he doesn't have to try and take a lot of shots downfield and risk turning the ball over. There's no quarterback competition, so he can go out there and play his game rather than always having to look over his shoulder or try and force things to impress the coaches. The previous coaching staff did not know how to coach up quarterbacks, which has been evident at PSU for a long, long time, particularly when Jay Paterno was the quarterbacks coach. It's night and day now compared to the previous coaching staff in terms of its ability to work on a quarterback's technique, footwork and fundamentals.
Senior linebacker Michael Mauti has been a driving force (both on the field and off it) behind the Lions' three-game win streak and received Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for his efforts against Illinois. Did you expect he could raise his game to this level after battling nagging knee injuries?
CG: Michael Mauti is an excellent linebacker and a tremendous team leader. He's also a Penn State legacy player since his father and brother both played there, so he loves the school and the football program as much as anyone on campus. He is healthy this season after suffering two knee injuries, and his passion and great ability have enabled him to be the best defensive player in the Big Ten so far.
Excluding Mauti, linebacker Gerald Hodges and tackle Jordan Hill, who are some of Penn State's best defensive playmakers? Who are some of its best offensive playmakers?
CG: The playmakers on defense are cornerback Adrian Amos, who will be tested this week, and defensive ends Deion Barnes and Sean Stanley. The latter two make up a strong front seven that is the strength of the team. On offense, receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Kyle Carter give McGloin reliable targets.
What is the Lions' biggest strength? biggest weakness?
CG: The biggest strength is that the team is much better coached than in previous years. The biggest weakness is the place-kicking, so PSU will have a tough time winning games that are decided by a field goal.
CG: Penn State 34, Northwestern 30