UNIVERSITY PARK - Although his team is 5-0, coming off a 44-29 win over Indiana and ranked No. 24 in the country, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald believes it's the opponent this week that's playing some of the best football in the nation.
Fitzgerald had nothing but praise for Penn State and its coach, Bill O'Brien, during his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon. The Wildcats' coach said O'Brien has his team playing "as hot as anybody in the country right now."
"They are fast, and they are physical," Fitzgerald said. "Their kids are playing with an attitude, they are playing for each other and they are playing for their university. It is impressive to watch what they are doing."
This week is the first time this season, the Wildcats have made it into the Top 25. The Nittany Lions have not beaten a ranked team at Beaver Stadium since 2008.
Fitzgerald downplayed the importance of his team moving into the polls and said it's something completely out of their control. The coach said his team is still "young in too many places" and will have its work cut out this weekend.
"We have not put together four full quarters of clean football yet in all three phases," the coach said.
Linebacker Michael Mauti was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in three weeks Monday, after his two-interception performance in Saturday's 35-7 win at Illinois. Mauti was named the top defensive player in the nation on Sunday by the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
Kain Colter is listed as the Wildcats' starting quarterback for Saturday's game, but Fitzgerald was noncommittal on how he would be used along with teammate Trevor Siemian.
Last week Colter played both quarterback and wide receiver. The junior finished with four rushing touchdowns on 14 carries for 161 yards. He also had nine catches for 131 yards. Siemian threw for 308 yards and completed 22-of-32 attempts in his first career start.
The offensive duo will face what their coach called the best defense his team has seen all season led by senior linebacker Michael Mauti. Fitzgerald said he watched with great respect this summer as Mauti fought to keep together his team in the midst of NCAA sanctions.
Fitzgerald said this is a completely different Penn State team compared to those his teams have faced in the past.
The coach said the Lions present a number of schematic challenges that makes game prepping for them so difficult. Fitzgerald said O'Brien puts great pressure on opposing defenses to tip their hands with the amount of formations and motions the Lions run.
The Wildcats are preparing to play in a loud and excited Beaver Stadium on Saturday, especially since Penn State is returning home riding a three game win streak.
It will be homecoming, and some Penn State students are planning a "student whiteout" with the help of social media to help show their support.
The effort is being organized by Nittanyville, a group of students who camp outside Beaver Stadium in the days leading up to every home game.
"The students all come to the game, it's awesome," Fitzgerald said. "It's a great college environment. The fans are very knowledgeable, and obviously Pennsylvania football speaks for itself."
Fitzgerald called Beaver Stadium one of the best environments in college football and said his team is embracing the challenge of coming to play there. He said come around 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, he will have a much better idea of where his team is at and how good it really is.
"This is why you come to play to play Big Ten football," Fitzgerald said.