Now, the Wildcats (2-4, 0-3) have to concentrate on winning enough games to become bowl-eligible. Considering the Wildcats had big expectations with the return of quarterback Dan Persa, Northwestern must take advantage of a favorable schedule with Penn State coming into town on Oct. 22 and then traveling to Indiana.
"Right now we need to make a choice," said wide receiver Kain Colter said. "We're just facing the worst part of the storm and we can turn around and go back or we can keep pushing on and just weather the storm. I feel like at this point in the season, we need to make a choice if we want to be great or if we want to just win a couple of games here and a couple of games there and just be average."
One bright spot in the losing season remains the stellar play of Colter. The do-it-all athlete had a big performance at Iowa. Colter's ability to run, pass and catch the ball brings a different dimension to the Northwestern offense. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will utilize Colter more at quarterback in the coming weeks.
"He's pretty special," Fitzgerald said about Colter. "He knows he's got multiple roles, so he's taking the time to invest and get ready for games. It's all because of his work ethic, I alluded to it two weeks ago when his role changed from being the starting quarterback to now being a Kain-of-all-trades. His attitude has been phenomenal, that's all you could ask. We need more guys like Kain."
One of the troubling aspects of Northwestern's loss at Iowa was the miscommunication on defense, which allowed the Hawkeyes to take over the second half with numerous big plays. Several members of the secondary expressed frustration over the checks.
"I think they've taken responsibility, I do," Fitzgerald said. "They definitely have internally, they're working hard to get it fixed but the definition of insanity is repeating the same performance and expecting a different outcome. We'll look real hard personnel-wise at some things, make sure we've got the best 11 out there. We'll look at things schematically, are we asking them to do too much? Are they thinking out there, when they should just be playing fast? At the end of the day are they making mental mistakes in the arena? If that's the case we've got to make some changes."
The Wildcats do get a break with Penn State receiver Derek Moore out with a broken foot. Even without Moore, one of the Big Ten's best offensive players, the Nittany Lions have Justin Brown and Devon Smith, with both players presenting different problems for Northwestern's defense with their size and speed.
"I wouldn't say they don't have a great offense, at times it just hasn't happened for them," Fitzgerald said. "If it's turnovers, or one-man breakdowns, they've also played some pretty good defense themselves. I think they've got playmakers all over the board; it's not that, it's just that it hasn't clicked. Hopefully we can postpone their clicking for one week, that'd be good."
--WR Jeremy Ebert is shaping up to be one of the best wide receivers in school history. Ebert has 1,771 career receiving yards and caught 16 touchdowns. The senior is 10 catches away from cracking the Top 10 in the school's career reception list.
--QB Dan Persa completed 30 passes against Michigan and 32 at Iowa to become the first Northwestern quarterback to complete at least 30 passes in consecutive games since Mike Kafka in September of 2009.
--KR Venric Mark averages 14.2 yard per punt return this year, helping the Wildcats rank second in that category in the Big Ten.
SERIES HISTORY: Penn State leads Northwestern 11-3 (last meeting, 2010, 35-21 PSU).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Expect to see more split time at quarterback between Dan Persa and Kain Colter after last week's game at Iowa. Persa has been on a tear since returning to the field, completing at least 30 passes in his last two games. Colter gives the offense an added threat with his passing, running and receiving. Thus far, the two have demonstrated the ability to be productive without losing any rhythm due to sitting out a few plays. The Wildcats have averaged 30 points a game since Persa rejoined the team for the Illinois game.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Improving pass defense is the biggest agenda for the Wildcats heading into the second half of the season. The Wildcats are allowing 9.8 yards per pass attempt, ranking dead last in the country at 120th out of 120 teams. Meanwhile, Northwestern's opponent this week, Penn State, is allowing 5.1 yards per pass attempt. The Wildcats lack quality speed in the secondary and been bothered by communication issues.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The definition of insanity is repeating the same performance and expecting a different outcome. So we'll look at personnel and make sure we have the best 11 out there." -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on whether changes will be made on defense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK'S GAME: Penn State at Northwestern, Oct. 22 -- The Wildcats entertain the Nittany Lions for their annual Homecoming game. The Nittany Lions have ruled in the series, winning 11 of the 14 meetings.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Wildcats have shown the ability to score points throughout the season. Penn State relies on a stingy defense, surrendering 20 or more points in just one game this season. The Nittany Lions boost the sixth-best defense in the country in total defense. The Wildcats will look to get Kain Colter some more chances to make plays in a variety of ways, including under center. Northwestern has to play with energy for all four quarters after struggling in the last three weeks with a full game of intensity.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Kain Colter -- He did everything on the field at Iowa last week. Colter should get added plays this week as the Wildcats search for a way to get some consistency.
QB Dan Persa -- He got lost in the shuffle last week after completing 31-of-40 passes, but tossed a back-breaking interception that was returned for a touchdown at Iowa.
DE Vince Browne, -- He has 18 career sacks and must get pressure from the edge to not allow the Nittany Lions time to throw the ball.
--QB Dan Persa elected to shave his head this week.
--WR Kain Colter is expected to share the quarterback duties again this week with starter Dan Persa.