Fitzgerald very impressed with way Penn State has bonded

Count Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald as very impressed with the way Penn State coaches and players have bonded following a tumultuous summer, and have focused on playing fine football.

Speaking Monday at his weekly press conference in Evanston, Ill., Fitzgerald said the Nittany Lions (3-2), his team’s next opponent Saturday at Beaver Stadium, is “playing very physical, very efficient football” and is “as hot as anybody in the country right now.”

He said he admires how the leadership on the Lions pulled the team together following the sanctions levied against the team in July as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

“You’ve got to tip your hat and be incredibly impressed with the job the coaching staff and the young men have done when it comes to playing the game of football,” Fitzgerald said. “They play for each other. They play as one. They’re playing with great passion and great physicality.”

Fitzgerald praised head coach Bill O’Brien and his staff for “doing a terrific job.” He also said he admired the Lions’ leadership and singled out senior linebacker Michael Mauti as one of the catalysts.

“Michael Mauti is an impressive guy,” he said. “I watched the interview this summer (after the sanctions were announced). There’s no question he’s a terrific leader. He’s overcome a bunch of physical adversity through injuries.”

The Nittany Lions won their third straight game Saturday, defeating Illinois, 35-7, in their Big Ten opener. The Wildcats (5-0), who moved into the rankings this week at No. 24, rolled up a school-record 704 yards of total offense in a 44-29 win over Indiana.

Fitzgerald, however, said his team is “far from where we want to be” and expressed concern about the momentum that Penn State will bring into the game. He said the Lions offense tries to pressure defenses with different formations, and that the Penn State defense “will be the best defense we’ve played to date.”

Fitzgerald said quarterback Matt McGloin, who has accounted for 14 of Penn State’s 17 touchdowns with 10 passes and four runs, “is playing at a really high level.

“I’ve always thought highly of Matt McGloin,” he said. “He’s a guy that’s been very successful. He’s tough, he’s gritty, he takes hits. You watch the way he played in the Virginia game, he was a warrior in that game, gave them a chance to win. So it’s really impressive the way he plays.”

Fitzgerald’s compliments extended to the Penn State student section, which he called “awesome” as part of a “great college environment” at Beaver Stadium. Two years ago, the Wildcats blew a 21-0 first-half lead there and lost, giving the late Joe Paterno his 400th career victory.

But he didn’t want to talk much about whether the atmosphere will be any different given the coaching change and the events of the past 10-plus months.

“All those things are out of our control,” Fitzgerald said. “We focus on ourselves. That’s just what we do. Obviously we’re going to lift the victims up in our thoughts and our prayers. But we’ve moved forward and I think so have they.”

As for his team, Fitzgerald said he will keep junior Kain Colter as his starting quarterback but was coy on his plans for the player. Colter rushed 14 times for 164 yards and four touchdowns against Indiana while catching nine passes for 131 yards.

Fitzgerald said Colter will be successful this week if the Wildcats can execute, not necessarily because of deception.

“It still comes back to blocking and tackling and throwing and catching and running and taking care of the football,” he said. “At the end of the day, personnel is personnel. They’re going to game plan what they need to do and the way they feel they need to defend us, and it’s the same thing for us with them.”

--Joe Juliano