Post-Game Analysis: Penn State
by Jonathan Hodges

To say it was a tale of two halves would be an understatement, but I'll get to that in a bit.  In the meantime, the Northwestern Wildcats (6-3, 2-3) are still reeling from a disheartening 21-35 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-2) that gave the latter's head coach Joe Paterno the anticipated win number 400.  PSU and its fans had plenty of reason to celebrate: JoePa got his 400th win, they earned bowl eligibility, and they did it in an exciting and dominating fashion.

The game didn't start out that way, though; instead, it started out quite the opposite with Northwestern taking the reigns early and taking command of the game on both sides of the ball throughout the first half.  In fact, NU received the ball on the opening kickoff and, in their normal methodical fashion, drove 74 yards in 7 plays to take an early lead with a 6 yard Dan Persa run into the end zone.  What was interesting was NU's use of the zone read running play as well as Persa's success running the ball on that play.  In fact, NU's first offensive snap of the game featured a 31 yard run from Persa, the longest in his career and the 'Cats' longest run from scrimmage since 2008 (the previous long over that period was a 29 yard run from Venric Mark against MSU this season).

The Wildcats' early momentum continued as NU found a way to stop Penn State on fourth down on the ensuing drive at the NU 33 yard line with one yard to gain.  Although NU went three-and-out, the 'Cats were making PSU earn every yard and were also getting pressure on PSU QB Robert Bolden, who made the start after missing the last game and a half with a concussion.  On the next Penn State drive, after moving the ball into NU territory, NU S Hunter Bates came in on a blitz unblocked and hit Bolden as he was preparing to throw, forcing a fumble with the 'Cats recovering.  Northwestern would drive down to well within the red zone, but their drive would stall and Stefan Demos, who had hit his last 4 FGs in less than ideal conditions, missed this FG try just to the left of the upright.

Although the tide wouldn't yet turn, Penn State began to make the necessary changes as they brought in Matt McGloin at QB, the same QB who led in most of their last two games, both victories.  He started off 2-of-5 passing on the first drive, but it was clear that he was more comfortable throwing the football, and that fact would eventually help tilt the game in PSU's favor.

But before that would happen, the 'Cats would once again drive down the field systematically, reaching the end zone in 9 plays and 64 yards, with Persa capping the drive with his second TD run of the game.  A 14-0 second quarter lead at PSU that was beginning to quiet the Happy Valley crowd certainly looked nice at the time, and the good part for NU wasn't quite over.  McGloin going 1-of-4 on the ensuing drive was a big reason that Penn State ended up punting, but NU was forced into a three-and-out on the drive after that.  The usually reliable Brandon Williams shanked a punt, though, that went just 30 yards with a 5 yard return by PSU, giving them the ball on the Northwestern 41 yard line and an opportunity to get on the board.

They moved the ball just enough to get into PSU kicker Collin Wagner's range, but he couldn't get enough leg to hit the 51 yard attempt, giving Northwestern the ball back with just over 3 minutes remaining in the half.  Dan Persa got the ball moving quickly, starting off with a 41 yard pass to Jeremy Ebert, who gained a good portion of that thanks to his usual yards after the catch running ability.  The 'Cats quickly got into scoring position and Persa hit Drake Dunsmore on one of the prettiest grabs you'll ever see, a jumping one-handed catch in the back of the end zone where Dunsmore got one foot in bounds with possession of the ball in order to put NU up by a significant 21-0 margin with under 1 minute to play in the half.  Things were looking very good for Northwestern at that point.

Then came the start of the collapse.

Despite having very little time remaining in the half, Penn State seemed to revert to prototypical PSU style offense: running the ball and relying on good blocking schemes and execution up front in order to move the ball, mixed in with short passing and the threat of longer play action passes.  Also, it helped that McGloin got his feet wet a bit through his first two unsuccessful but preparative drives.  McGloin went 5-of-6 on the drive while PSU RBs added some significant yardage, including a 21 yard run from Stephfon Green on a third down at the PSU 32 that seemed to be the tipping point of the drive.  If the 'Cats were able to contain them, it's likely NU could have gone into halftime up three or more scores.

Instead, PSU drove to the NU 7 yard line with under 10 seconds remaining, and McGloin found slot WR Brett Brackett in the back of the end zone for another great catch that just made it in as a TD.  For good measure, the 'Cats were flagged for pass interference on the play, although that was obviously declined.  After taking the kickoff and downing the ball, Northwestern went into halftime up 21-7, although it was clear that Penn State had taken the momentum.

The third quarter was a one-sided affair, and not in NU's favor.  I don't need to rehash the drive-by-drive breakdown because it is pretty easy to summarize: PSU did what they wanted, when they wanted, both through the air and on the ground, racking up 188 total yards and 10 first downs in the quarter compared to just 27 yards and 1 first down for the 'Cats.  By the time it was over, Penn State was holding a 28-21 lead, the 'Cats defense didn't look like it could stop anything, and the NU offense wasn't going anywhere.

PSU wouldn't stop there, driving 79 yards in 6 plays to tack on another TD in their first drive of the fourth quarter, capping it off with a screen pass for TD to Evan Royster, giving McGloin his fourth passing TD of the game.  When NU defenders weren't being pancaked by PSU blockers, they were missing tackles, and the Nittany Lions had the yards and touchdowns to prove it.

The Northwestern offense would give it one last gasp, though, thanks to Persa who completed two long passes to Ebert to get the ball inside the PSU 10.  On fourth-and-goal, despite doing everything he could to evade the PSU pressure, Persa's on-target pass to Mike Trumpy was juggled and dropped in the end zone, negating a great opportunity for Northwestern to cut the lead to one score and have at least a glimmer of a chance to get back into it.

On the following drive, Penn State was content to run the clock, get into NU territory, then punt the ball inside the 'Cats' 10 yard line, giving NU an almost insurmountable task of trying to score 2 touchdowns with just over 4 minutes left in the contest.  Once again, Persa did his best, but the drive stalled at midfield and Northwestern's last possession was finished off with two sacks on Persa as PSU let their pass rushers go crazy given the situation.  That allowed Penn State to down the ball a few times and begin celebrating JoePa's win number 400.

We'll explore more about what happened below and see if the 'Cats have a prayer against their final three opponents, all of whom do similar things as PSU, but in most cases do a much better job at them.

Player of the Game

PSU Coach Joe Paterno:  If anyone deserves this honor, it's JoePa, who found a way to rally his troops and get them to equal the biggest comeback (21 points) under him.  Although he doesn't directly manage most of the game preparation or the on-field activities, he definitely provided the guidance today and built a program that got him to win number 400: quite an impressive feat.  Also, it wouldn't surprise me if he just told his assistants to run the ball and let the rest take care of itself after their poor start to the game, and that plan worked out fairly well.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (16-of-25 passing for 201 yards and 1 TD, 21 carries for 133 yards rushing and 2 TDs, without sacks)  Persa did just about everything he could in his one opportunity to shine back in his home state, accounting for all three of the Wildcats' scores and doing everything he could to put NU in a position to get back into the game later.  He averaged 6.3 yards per carry (again, removing sacks) and had NU's highest single game rushing total since Mike Kafka ran for 217 yards at Minnesota in 2008.  He was also a big reason that NU has put together a string of 11 consecutive quarters without a turnover.

WR Jeremy Ebert (6 catches for 111 yards):  All this guy does is catch the ball and find a way to pick up as many yards as he can afterwards.  He leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game by almost 9 yards and is definitely Persa's go to guy; a pass to him almost always pays big dividends.  Again, it's hard to fault him for the loss.

What to Work on

Defense: Stopping the run, rushing the passer, coverage in the secondary, tackling: just about everything needs work.  The 'Cats started off fairly well, actually getting 2 sacks early in the game and forcing PSU to pass the ball in unfavorable circumstances, but that changed significantly when PSU made some adjustments and decided to use running the ball straight ahead as their primary weapon.  NU gave up a whopping 528 yards of total offense, including 260 on the ground mostly thanks to 2 100+ yard rushers: Royster and Silas Redd.  With Penn State doing whatever they wanted on the ground, NU's defense didn't have a prayer, as shown by McGloin's success passing the ball.  NU defenders were routinely getting caught against the flow or were blocked thanks to solid schemes by the PSU offense.  When they did have a shot at a tackle, they almost regularly were made to look silly.  I could go on, but there really isn't much reason to do so.

Penalties:  For the first time since the first game of the season, NU actually got flagged fewer times and for less yardage than its opponent.  Unfortunately, all of NU's penalties (including some that were declined) came during "the collapse."  It went to show the all-around inability to get anything going on either side of the ball from near the end of the second quarter onwards.

Second Half:  The Wildcats have now been tied or ahead during the second half in 25 consecutive games.  NU has gone on to lose 9 of those games, mostly in heartbreaking fashion.  As I documented earlier this season, Fitz has had his share of troubles finishing off games, and this is yet another testament to that.  He does a great job of putting NU in a position to win, unfortunately Northwestern just hasn't been able to finish the job in many key games.

Offensive Flow:  It's seemingly been feast or famine for the NU offense this year, as shown by the fact that NU went three-and-out four times, gained one first down once, but managed to put together 7+ play drives for 40+ yards in their 6 other drives of significance (throwing out downing the ball to end the first half).  Yes, sometimes the offensive game plan doesn't work, but unfortunately for the 'Cats it didn't work on three consecutive drives to begin the second half, during which time PSU seemingly waltzed into the lead.

Random Observations

Turnovers and Points Off

After posting a clean slate for the second consecutive game, Northwestern has now avoided making a turnover for 11 consecutive quarters, dating back to the Jacob Schmidt fumble at the one yard line against Michigan State.

Also, this was Northwestern's 5th consecutive game without scoring any points off of turnovers (despite gaining at least one turnover in each of those games), and that after scoring 53 points off of turnovers in the first four games of the season.  It seems clear that without getting these momentum-shifting points, Northwestern puts itself in a much more precarious position.

Third Down Conversions

In a very uncharacteristic game, the Wildcats converted just 42.9% of their third downs while yielding a 56.3% rate, basically an inverse of how they handled third downs coming into the game.  The inability of the offense to sustain drives (particularly on 3 thee-and-out drives) meant that the 'Cats didn't have much of a chance to keep up with PSU in the second half.  And on defense, they just couldn't get off the field and were particularly burned by the screen pass that Penn State seemed to pull out at just the right times.

Missing McManis and Others

What I believe Northwestern misses more than anything else on defense is a shutdown corner like Sherrick McManis, who may be one of the top unheralded players in NU history.  The general inability of the NU defensive backs to play man-to-man defense forces the 'Cats to drop safeties back to help out or to resort to a zone defense, and that either opens up room to run or allows receivers to find holes in the zone.

Another problem has been lack of consistent pressure up front, and it's clear that the 'Cats miss Corey Wootton as well.  NU has had a couple of sacks, but they seem few and far between; otherwise opposing QBs have had more than enough time to sit back and find an open receiver.  And, as shown against Penn State, they have had trouble against the run at times as well.

It's time for some of the young and talented players to step up and show why Fitz has called this team one of the deepest and most talented he's seen at NU.  There have been flashes at almost every position, but no consistent effort that could be relied upon for a full 60 minutes.  Time is running out on the season and it's time for some players to answer the call.

Bowl Positioning

Saturday was generally a bad day for Northwestern's bowl positioning, as their loss to Penn State allowed the Nittany Lions to achieve bowl eligibility and will give PSU an edge when the bowls pick their teams.  Also, Michigan's 3OT 67-65 win over Illinois (no, not in basketball) boosted them to 6 wins and will likely boost them over the 'Cats as well (even moreso if they can find a seventh win, which is within the realm of possibility).  This also looked to be NU's best chance at a key 7th victory (which would keep NU ahead of any 6-win teams in the bowl selection order), and the 'Cats must now hope to pull off a big upset against one of their remaining foes, all of whom look to be very solid teams on both sides of the ball.

Right now, as summarized on the HTP Bowl Page, NU's most likely destination is the inaugural Dallas Football Classic, although they have outside shots at the Texas and Insight Bowls.  The key to staying out of Detroit, though, will be picking up that aforementioned 7th victory, and/or hoping things go well above them (getting 2 Big Ten teams into BCS games), and/or making sure Indiana and Purdue are not bowl eligible (which is looking less likely).  One must hope that the 'Cats still have that magic upset left in them as they'll need it to ensure they end up somewhere warm in late December.

Final Thought

It was indeed a tough loss if only because Northwestern fans saw that the Wildcats could play with and beat Penn State after taking a commanding 21-0 lead.  But, like in their two previous losses on the season, the 'Cats collapsed, this time in spectacular fashion.  Although the performance from about the last minute of the first half onwards left NU fans reeling, the fact is that the ability is there and if NU manages to finally put together a full 60 minutes of solid play, Northwestern can beat almost any team.

Now time to see how the 'Cats respond to this adversity; they still sit at a respectable 6-3 and have a chance to pull off an upset over some respectable teams down the stretch in order to move up the bowl ladder.  Yes, it will be a tough task, but that's when Northwestern football is seemingly at its best.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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