Tom Bradley's defenses did not allow Northwestern to score a second-half point in any of Penn State's last four games against the Wildcats.
Ted Roof's Penn State defense has allowed only one first-half touchdown this season.
Ted Roof's defense has allowed one first-half touchdown in five games this season.
If both trends hold, Saturday afternoon will be a long one for Kain Colter and an explosive Northwestern offense. If both break, Beaver Stadium might see its first shootout of the season.
The Nittany Lions got off to a shaky defensive start in losses to Ohio and Virginia and, even after strong performances in their last three games, all wins, rank ninth in the Big Ten in total defense, surrendering 357.6 yards per game. But they are second in scoring defense at 13.6 points per game and, said their new defensive coordinator, are coming together as a unit.
"I think they definitely understand the expectation level," Roof said Thursday morning during a conference call. "They have a very high level of expectation of themselves. The comfort and the communication grow every week. It's not everywhere close to where it needs to be but we've just got to keep improving every week."
The Nittany Lions gave up four passing touchdowns in the first two games, including the go-ahead score in the final minutes in the loss at Virginia, but have allowed just two passing touchdowns in the last three weeks. One came on a halfback pass from Illinois' running back Donovonn Young.
Roof has only used a nickel defense for one play this season, instead opting for a look that puts speedy linebacker Mike Hull on the field and moves cornerback Adrian Amos to safety on passing downs. Penn State's linebackers have been asked to cover a lot this season, with mixed results.
"At times they've done a good job, and overall I've been pleased with them," Roof said, "but we've still got to get a lot better."
In past years, Northwestern spread teams out and moved the ball with short, quick passes. This Wildcats team has thrown the ball just 37 percent of the time but, like its predecessors, still forces defenses to play sound, assignment football.
"What they do is they make you defend the entire width of the football field," Roof said. "It doesn't allow you to gang up on people, forces you to make plays in space."
The Nittany Lions have spent much of the week game-planning against Colter, who is listed as a quarterback but is more dangerous as a runner and receiver than he is as a passer. They don't believe the Wildcats have yet showed all the ways in which they'll use him.
"What we've tried to do this week is identify where he is on the field," Roof said. "As his roles are expanded, there is going to be a next step. It's just a matter of what it is."