by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Northwestern heads to the Colosseum this weekend. Like the gladiators of yore, they will tango with lions, though lions of a different stripe. This has all the makings of a movie. An unexpectedly good Northwestern team looks to prove that its No. 24 ranking and 5-0 start are anything but a fluke at Beaver Stadium, which is as close to a Colosseum as the Big Ten has. The Wildcats' chances in this mammoth venue are not great. They have been eaten there by the Nittany Lions nearly every single time in the past. They've lost six of seven in University Park, including a friendly, little tease in 2010, where Penn State let Northwestern jump out to a 21-0 lead before rearing its head back and gnashing the Wildcats in its terrible teeth, 35-21.
This will be in many ways a huge test for Northwestern. The Wildcats have played just one road game this season, and that was a month and change ago. Coach Pat Fitzgerald rightly points out that the Carrier Dome provided a good test for his team, but Northwestern's 42-41 victory over Syracuse raised as many questions as it did answers. The miscommunication in the secondary was particularly alarming, as Ryan Nassib unfurled deep ball after deep ball on a largely confused-looking Wildcats backfield, since Matt McGloin is an even better quarterback, and Beaver Stadium is an even harder place to communicate and play. The Carrier Dome, for all of its basketball renown, is not Beaver Stadium. There were just 37,830 people at the Carrier Dome that day. In contrast, 98,792 showed up to watch a winless Penn State team pummel Navy the other day. You'd have to be a loon to deny that the Nittany Lions will draw six digits on Saturday, and those six digits will wear white and scream and make things very difficult on a Wildcats secondary that will need to be on point against McGloin.
Another common refrain making its way around Evanston is that Northwestern can score on anyone. That's easy to say when the Wildcats have yet to face an elite defense. Indiana's defense boasted more underclassmen than I could count. Vanderbilt just gave up 48 to Georgia. Boston College wasn't much better, surrendering 42 to Miami and 45 to Clemson. Penn State is in a different league. As Fitzgerald said Monday, "Defensively, this will be the best defense we've played to date." Fitzgerald referenced a frightening number on Monday, and he was right, the Nittany Lions are 14th in the country with 13.6 points surrendered per game, and what they did to the Fighting Illini has to make the Wildcats take a big gulp. They smothered a moble threat in Nathan Scheelhaase, as somehow, 46 passes only turned into 270 yards, and they held Illinois to 74 yards rushing. They also forced two interceptions and a fumble. Michael Mauti, as Fitzgerald said, "is an impressive guy" at linebacker. Jordan Hill brings experience to the defensive line, with 59 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks a year ago. Penn State, per usual, has defense galore, and linebackers galore, as Mauti is joined by the coaches' first-team All-Big Ten selection from a year ago, Gerald Hodges, who is coming off an 106-tackle season. Thus far, Northwestern has had tremendous success running the ball. In fact, the Wildcats have 275-plus rushing yards in each of their last three games. Whether Venric Mark will be able to run it up the middle against such a stout defense is questionable at best. Last year, an admittedly inferior Northwestern rushing attack managed just 94 yards against Penn State on 2.5 yards per carry. Colter will always be Colter, but will Mark always be Mark?
Some are making this Saturday's game out to be a must-win contest. That's far from the truth. The good news for Northwestern is that it doesn't get eaten by the lions if it loses this game. In fact, the Wildcats probably have less need to win this week than any team in the Big Ten. They have plenty of wins left on their schedule. They should win at Minnesota, and they should win at home against Iowa and Illinois. Those three wins alone would bring them to 8-4, their best record since 2009.
But if this team is to earn its ranking; if this team is to entertain dreams of a cold December night under the lights in Indianapolis, this is the type of game it must win. It doesn't have to win this game, per se. But it will have to win games of this nature. It will need to win at least one of two on its road trip through the Great Lakes State. It will need to send Michigan a serious scare at the Big House. It will need to protect its house (your welcome, Under Armour) against a Nebraska team hungry for revenge at Ryan Field. So, Saturday isn't a must-win, but it's a damn good chance for the Wildcats to prove themselves in front of a national audience. It's a damn good chance to prove that they belong in the Top 25. It's a damn good chance to prove that they belong in the Big Ten title conversation. It's a damn good chance to send a statement to the rest of the league.
"To go on the road and have this kind of challenge," Fitzgerald said, "we're going to find out kind of where we're at come four o'clock Eastern on Saturday."
They'll be on ESPN against Penn State, and they'll be back on ESPN the following week against Minnesota. It wouldn't surprise me if their grudge match against Nebraska was on ESPN as well, so they will have their chances, in front of a national audience, to shine. And what better place to perform under the lights than the Colosseum.