Windy City Heartbreak: Northwestern 23, Penn State 21
Football can be a cruel, cruel sport. In a contest largely dominated by Northwestern, at least in the first half, Penn State made its case. Led by sensational running back Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions charged back to reclaim the lead late in the game. But, all that glitters is not gold, and that idiom rang true today — truer than it has all season.
James Franklin shot his team in the foot with a horrific display of clock-management, allowing the Wildcats to march down the field and hit the deciding field goal with seconds remaining. The loss hurts, but the reasons for the loss hurt more. Take a look at how the action unfolded.
How It Happened
Penn State started out with possession, as Northwestern won the coin toss and opted to defer. Koa Farmer let the kick bounce in the endzone and allowed the Lions to begin on the 25 yard line. Saquon Barkley gained five yards in vain, because a false start call on the next play warranted a false-start call. Shaky offensive reared its head as Christian Hackenberg’s pass to DeaSean Hamilton went wide and sent Northwestern on the punt. Hackenberg, who finished with 205 yards and an interception, struggled early on, but slowly got into a rhythm as the game progressed.
Northwestern managed to recover a loose ball on a poor return-attempt soon after, setting up a solid drive that resulted in a scoreless drive. Linebacker Brandon Bell provided an early defensive spark, barreling through the line to drill Clayton Thorson as he attempted to throw. Thorson felt the effects, and headed to the sideline for further treatment. His replacement, senior Zack Oliver, took over right where he left off, getting Northwestern on the board with a beautiful strike to Christian Jones to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.
Offensive stagnation that plagued the Nittany Lions early on in the season made an unwelcome return in Evanston, as the Lions failed to generate anything offensively in the game’s early minutes. Mike Gesicki struggled with a case of the drops, failing to get in a consistent groove as he quietly became an offensive liability.
The Wildcats smelled blood in the second quarter, and quickly took advantage. After gaining 87 yards in the first quarter, Northwestern’s Zack Oliver hit Christian Jones for a 14 yard touchdown. An Oliver keeper made it 13-0, but Barkley stormed back to get the Lions on the board with a keeper from the wildcat formation. Northwestern’s Warren Long extended Northwestern’s lead to 20-13 after pounding it in from the one yard line.
The third quarter began how the second left off, with Justin Jackson gouging the Lions up the middle, this time for 25 yards. Had it not been for Marcus Allen’s last-minute lung, he would’ve easily taken the handoff to the house. If you though last week’s theatrics were a thing of the past, you’re wrong. Geno Lewis brought the stagnant Lions offense back to life with a beautiful bomb to DaeSean Hamilton to get the Lions to within six. Shortly following the momentum-swinging trick play, linebacker Jason Cabinda undercut a wobbly deep ball from Zack Oliver to give the Lions another shot.
After an unsuccessful drive, the Wildcats took over around the 30. Carl Nassib, who’d been relatively quiet all game long, came bursting around the edge to pummel an unsuspecting Zack Oliver, prying the ball loose and gifting the Lions with possession. With the play, he sets the school record for sacks in a season with 15.5. It’s yet another milestone for the former walk-on, this one a bit more significant than the rest.
A pair of nifty runs from Saquon Barkley set the offense up within striking distance inside the redzone, and it was only fitting that Barkley capped off the drive with a touchdown of his own — his second of the day. The scamper put Penn State up 21-20, and gave Barkley his seventh touchdown of the season — tying him with a long-standing freshman record.
After a string of completions, a pass intended for Miles Shuler fell short after Marcus Allen came crashing up the middle. The seemingly promising drive came to a close after Pat Fitzgerald opted to punt it away on fourth and long, giving the Lions possession with less than three minutes to go.
After nearly intercepting Oliver, Grant Haley is burned on a deep ball that allowed Northwestern to chew the clock after marching down the field. Justin Jackson, who tallied 185 yards on the day, led the charge, and set up Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell for the go-ahead 35 yard field goal. The Lions failed to get anywhere close to the goal line, fumbling the ball, and subsequently the game.
Player of the Game
Saquon Barkley continued to shine for the Nittany Lions, this time adding a pair of wildcat scores to his already sparkling resume. Barkley finished with 120 yards and two touchdowns off 25 carries, proving that he can shoulder the load against the toughest fronts the Big Ten has to offer.
The Lions head into a much-needed bye week, followed by a home meeting against No. 16 Michigan on Saturday, Nov. 21.