UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They were using phrases like "must-win" and "absolutely one of the biggest games I've played in." None of these words should be considered particularly offbeat in football, where games are constantly scrutinized and overhyped. The strange part is that these Penn State players were talking about Northwestern.
Though the Wildcats have vastly improved from their mostly forgettable days of the 1980s and '90s, they've never been considered a Big Ten power. They haven't won a bowl game since 1949.
This year, they've been the best team in what has been a disappointing conference. They feature a spread offense with the nation's ninth-best rushing attack, highlighted by quarterback Kain Colter, who carries and catches the ball as often as he throws it.
- Matchup: Penn State (3-2) vs. No. 24 Northwestern (5-0), noon today, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa. Penn State is favored by 2.
- TV, Radio, Internet: ESPN; KQV-AM (1410) and Penn State Sports Network; www.Go-PSUsports.com.
- Penn State: Defensive end Pete Massaro is listed as possible, but coach Bill O???Brien said he expects him to play. ??? Has the Big Ten???s top red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score 61.5 percent of the time. ??? Northwestern has the most efficient red-zone offense, scoring 92 percent of the time.
- Northwestern: Coach Pat Fitzgerald is 0-4 against Penn State. ??? Beat three BCS opponents (Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Boston College) that have a combined 3-9 record. ??? QB Trevor Sieman started against Indiana last week, throwing for 308 yards on 22-of-32 passing. Fellow QB Kain Colter caught nine of those passes for 131 yards.
- Hidden stat: In two games against Northwestern, QB Matt McGloin has thrown for 417 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Running back Bill Belton and linebacker Glenn Carson, who uttered the aforementioned phrases, meant what they said.
"I think that everybody knows how important this game is," Carson said.
A hot start hasn't always translated into success for Northwestern. The team has started 5-0 three times in the past five years. The previous two times, Northwestern finished 7-6 and 9-4. It goes without saying the Wildcats didn't win a bowl game either year.
"I think everybody who is part of this team wants to be known as the team that's breaking this drought," Colter said.
High on the list of importance today for Penn State is stopping Colter. Colter is Northwestern's star quarterback/running back/wide receiver. He has rushed for 371 yards, passed for 369 and caught nine passes for 131.
Colter says he has watched tape of players like former Steelers Antwaan Randle-El and Kordell Stewart to influence his own game.
Penn State has been watching tape of Colter this week. It had reserves such as Shane McGregor and Geno Lewis play his role in practice.
Coach Bill O'Brien said no one can quite portray Colter. He stressed the need to identify where he is on every play. Penn State's ability to contain him, as well as running backs Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy, will likely determine the outcome.
Northwestern rushes for an average of 255.8 yards a game. Penn State's rushing defense is good enough to place them at No. 46 in Division I-A, giving up an average of 129.8 yards per game. Northwestern will provide that defense's biggest challenge yet, and Penn State knows it.
"We have a long way to go this week," O'Brien said.psusports
Mark Dent: email@example.com and Twitter @mdent05. First Published October 6, 2012 4:30 AM