Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's been more than a decade since the Northwestern Wildcats were crowned Big Ten Conference champions, but they have come storming out of the gate here in 2012 with the clear intent of rectifying that fact.
The Wildcats have topped all comers through the first month and change of this new season, which includes a 44-29 win over Indiana in their league lidlifter last week. The victory over the Hoosiers, which improved the team to 5-0 for the third time in the last five years, and earned it its first Top-25 ranking since 2008, put the wraps on a four-game home stand.
Northwestern will play only its second road tilt of the campaign this Saturday at Penn State. Under seven-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former standout linebacker at NU in the 1990s, the 'Cats have performed well away from home in recent years, sporting a 15-8 record in true road games since 2008. Their lone clash outside of Evanston this season took place in the opener at Syracuse, and that resulted in a wild 42-41 win.
A victory over the Nittany Lions, which would be its first since 2004 and only its fourth in 16 all-time meetings, will move Northwestern to 6-0 for the first time since 1962, which was also the last time the team was ranked No. 1 in the country.
Behind a monster day by the extremely versatile Kain Colter, the Wildcats churned out a school-record 704 yards of total offense in last week's win over Indiana. Colter ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns, and added another 131 yards on nine receptions. When the dust had settled, NU rolled up 404 yards on the ground, as RB Venric Mark also got in on the act with 139 yards on 29 carries, marking the first time that the Wildcats had two 100-yard rushers in the same game since Nov. 22, 2003 against Illinois.
Following the win, Fitzgerald heaped high praise on Colter, "Kain is Kain. He is unbelievable. He is the most dynamic young man, I think, in this conference...I'm very proud of the way he's playing, but none of us are surprised."
The NU defense, which allowed 425 yards to the Hoosiers, is permitting 20.6 ppg for the season, which is nearly two touchdowns less than the team is scoring (33.8 ppg). The 'Cats have surrendered just four rushing scores in five games, and foes are averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry. They have been particularly tough to start a game, yielding just 16 points in the first quarter and 33 combined points in the first half.
The road to conference supremacy won't be an easy one, as in addition to this week's meeting with Penn State, Legends Division bouts with Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State are still to come. On paper, NU appears to be a long shot to supplant that trio of traditional powers, but this is a pesky collection of 'Cats if ever there was one, so failing to recognize them as a viable threat to win the division would be a mistake.
In an effort to maintain their focus and not to get too far ahead of themselves, the Wildcats are taking one game at a time.
"I think no matter who you play in the Big Ten, it's going to be a tough game. Whether you're playing Indiana, Nebraska, or Ohio State -- all these teams are tough," Colter said after last week's conference opener.
He continued, "Every week we have to go out there and play like we're playing the No. 1 team in the nation. That's how we have to play. I think we are starting to get some momentum and we have to try and keep that momentum. But, our whole goal this season has been to be 1-0 [each week]. So we're not going to look ahead to Nebraska or any other teams that we might face. We have Penn State coming up and that's what we're going to focus on."
Fitzgerald, who in 2011 was given a contract extension which is expected to keep him at the school until 2020, knows with that kind of personal security comes even greater expectations.
"I'm humbled and appreciative of the commitment shown by Northwestern, and with this support from our administration, our coaches and players expect to compete for championships."
Northwestern has only been to 10 bowl games in its history, nine of which have come since 1995, and only one has resulted in a victory -- 20-14 over California in the 1948 Rose Bowl. The team's current nine-game bowl losing streak is tied for the longest bowl skid of all time.
A win at Penn State would make the Wildcats eligible for a bowl game for the sixth straight year, but their goals aren't simply to reach the postseason. No, they have loftier aspirations, and anything short of a berth in the Big Ten title tilt will be a disappointment.