Post-Game Analysis: Penn State
by Jonathan Hodges

Another game, more disappointment for the Northwestern Wildcats (2-5, 0-4) as their losing streak has hit five games, meaning the 'Cats have lost eight of their last 10 games dating to Dan Persa's injury last season, as they fell to the Penn State Nittany Lions (7-1, 4-0) by a final score of 34-24 on Saturday night. The Wildcats pulled out all the stops yet again, sporting newly designed alternate uniforms specially designed by Adidas that were all purple with black numbering and silver numbered helmets (the only time Northwestern has ever worn silver helmets); also, Fitz made wholesale changes on defense, some due to injury (DE Tyler Scott was scratched, with Kevin Watt getting the start in his stead, and Bryce McNaul was also out with injury with Chi Chi Ariguzo getting the nod at LB) and some due to performance (David Arnold at S, Damien Proby at LB, and Quentin Williams at DE). But, it just wasn't enough to slow down PSU who rolled over the 'Cats thanks to a strong running game in the first half and one huge turnover in the second that allowed them to essentially seal the game.

Northwestern will once again be licking its wounds as Persa came out after a second half run that looked to put NU within striking distance, unfortunately Kain Colter came in at QB and took two huge losses on consecutive sacks, putting the 'Cats out of field goal range and effectively ending NU's chances on the night. Persa will reportedly be OK (the injury was to his left foot, not that infamous right Achilles' tendon), but NU has a lot more to clean up on both sides of the ball as the 'Cats had some costly drops on that drive that would have avoided the situation entirely (most notably a beautifully thrown ball from Persa to Jeremy Ebert, which he dropped while running into the end zone). And then there is the defense, which got torched both on the ground (197 rushing yards yielded at 5.2 yards per carry) and through the air (192 yards including a 45 yard TD that came on yet another long ball). Finally, special teams did NU no favors, either, with NU averaging 10.2 fewer yards per kickoff return in the game despite coming in looking to have the advantage in their favor.

Now with its bowl hopes at the dimmest point in four years and the possibility of a sub-.500 season (thanks to two tough remaining matchups: at Nebraska and versus Michigan State, both ranked in the top 15 as of this week), Northwestern must regroup and fight for respectability the rest of the way starting this week at reeling Indiana. It will certainly be an opportunity to get back in the win column, but the Hoosiers have played Northwestern tough over recent years, with NU having an average margin of victory of just 3.1 points per game despite a 6-1 record over the last seven meetings (two games went to OT). The final story on this year's 'Cats is yet to be written, and hopefully they have a positive final act.

First Half Summary

Northwestern started off the game fast with backup WR Mike Jensen forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff return and Jeravin Matthews recovering for the 'Cats, giving NU the ball at the PSU 34 yard line to start. Persa completed a couple of first down passes, and suddenly NU had first-and-goal, but after being kept out of the end zone on the first three tries, Fitz had an important choice to make. He put Persa in to run the QB keeper, and Dan found the end zone to put the Wildcats ahead 7-0 with under three minutes off the clock. Unfortunately, Northwestern followed its recent trend of giving up the lead, leaving one wondering if PSU had wanted to get into this situation all along.

Penn State responded quickly with a good mix of the power running game from RB Silas Redd and some play action passing from Matt McGloin, who Penn State smartly kept in for the entire game after rotating QBs through their first six contests of the year, and capped their drive with a short McGloin TD pass with the NU D continuing its poor performance despite the personnel shakeup. And Penn State fully gripped the game momentum when NU's ensuing drive stalled thanks to two consecutive sacks (of a total of seven for PSU on the night) and Brandon Williams' punt went just 26 yards, setting PSU on the Northwestern side of the field. After the TV timeout, the Nittany Lions came out and promptly tossed a 45 yard touchdown to Devon Smith who just plain ran by Demetrius Dugar to get open.

But, the 'Cats would respond before the second quarter rolled around, with Colter and Persa successfully rotating in and out to drive NU down the field, with Persa finishing things off with two passes that he got off right at the line of scrimmage; he capped the drive with a 12 yard strike to Colter in the end zone, which was reviewed and upheld after his position relative to the line of scrimmage was in question. Going into the second quarter, the game was tied and NU looked like it managed to weather the first big momentum swing in the game by getting it at least back to even.

Penn State was then driving thanks to 37 rushing yards from Redd, but the Northwestern defense came up with their first big stop of the night as they held and forced a field goal to give PSU a 17-14 advantage. The Wildcat offense would once again move the ball well against the vaunted PSU defense, this time jump started with a 46 yard Colter run that gave NU first-and-goal; Colter would cap the drive with a four yard score to give NU a 21-17 lead. Penn State drove yet again (this time, an NU-like 12 play methodical drive) that was stalled out thanks to a costly holding penalty deep in NU territory and a nice pass break-up by Brian Peters that forced another field goal, as NU held a lead by the slimmest of margins.

The Wildcats had excellent field position after a Persa-to-Ebert 54 yard connection put NU in the red zone. After a second down run and just under one minute in the half, Fitz called a questionable timeout with plenty of play clock remaining. The ensuing pass would be incomplete, and although Jeff Budzien hit the FG, giving NU a four point edge, there was still plenty of time left (particularly considering NU's porous pass defense). That was more than enough time for Penn State, who had all three timeouts, with the key play being a 42 yard Redd run after PSU was facing third-and-one at near midfield. They were then able to drive it into the end zone with under 10 seconds remaining, and suddenly Northwestern was heading into the locker room behind 27-24.

Second Half Summary

Fortunately, Northwestern would get the ball first to start the second half and looked as though they would be able to respond to hopefully retake the momentum; Persa was leading NU down the field and once again had NU at the cusp of the Penn State red zone when another ill-advised pass under pressure was tipped at the line and intercepted by PSU LB Gerald Hodges (no relation) who promptly returned the ball 63 yards to inside NU's red zone. Much like at Iowa the week before, this INT essentially took points off the board for NU and handed them to PSU, who scored on a Redd 19 yard scamper on the ensuing play; this was essentially a 10 point swing, which was the final margin of defeat for the 'Cats.

The remainder of the game (26:39) was essentially an exercise in futility that featured no scoring and eight punts. The most significant events came in the fourth quarter on a Northwestern drive in which they were looking to make a dent in the aforementioned 10 point PSU lead. The 'Cats quickly drove into PSU territory (to the 39 yard line), and on first down Persa threw a beautiful pass to Ebert on a go route who had a small edge over the Penn State defender. Unfortunately, the ball went through Ebert's hands at around the goal line, and so did Northwestern's chances for a W considering what happened on the remainder of the drive. Later, Jacob Schmidt also dropped a pass that was a likely first-down play, and then came a significant development as Persa came up hobbling after a four yard scamper on first down.

It turns out that Persa got a ding on his left foot (turf toe) and the injury was not to his right Achilles' tendon which was injured last season; in the post-game press conference Fitz said that he will be OK and was walking fine after the game and was just removed as a precaution. But, that was a significant development because Colter came in and was promptly sacked on two consecutive plays for a loss of 28 yards; after facing second down on the PSU 13, NU was now well out of FG range and was forced to punt still facing that 10 point deficit.

Penn State then went on a time-consuming drive of over five minutes that essentially stamped out any remaining hopes for the 'Cats, and Trevor Siemian was once again thrown to the wolves on NU's last ditch drive, and the PSU defense was certainly fierce and came hard on the pass rush, with three incompletions and a sack on four plays to officially close out the game (including one long pass on first down that went through a diving Ebert's fingertips). The Nittany Lions were then content to run out the clock and quietly go home with a win to stand alone at the top of the Leaders Division (when factoring in Wisconsin's loss at MSU later that evening), while the 'Cats are still searching for their first Big Ten win in almost a full year.

Player of the Game

PSU RB Silas Redd (18 carries for 164 yards, 9.1 yards/carry, 1 TD; 1 reception for 5 yards) Penn State's defense certainly played well (particularly in the second half), but Redd's running ability allowed PSU to rack up the yards (and points) in the first half and gave them enough offense to open up the passing game. NU had trouble with him last year and this time was more of the same, except he was clearly the focal point of the offense. The NU defense, sporting five new starters, just couldn't contain him, and even when they were getting hands on him couldn't bring him down on initial contact. The Wildcats knew PSU would go with power running, but they just couldn't stop it, and that was that.

What Happened

"The key for NU will be to limit costly mistakes like they had last week (e.g. red zone INT returned for TD, missed field goal, negative plays pushing the 'Cats out of field goal range) as they can't afford to leave points on the field in this game."

For the second straight week, a Persa interception essentially led to the final margin as that interception came on the cusp of the red zone and was returned into the opposite red zone, which PSU promptly drove in for a score (at least a 10 point swing). Also, NU once again drove itself out of field goal range late in the game when Colter took two big losses on consecutive sacks when he very well could have thrown away the ball or scrambled in a way to minimize the loss. The Northwestern defense strengthened down the stretch, but these two second half plays ended up costing Northwestern dearly.

"The key for the NU D, particularly the defensive line and the guys in the middle: Niko Mafuli and Jack DiNardo, will be to contain the running game and force PSU into passing downs

The defense, unfortunately, was just not able to contain Silas Redd, who averaged 9.1 yards per carry and gave PSU big plays when they needed them (the long run just before halftime to set up their go-ahead score and the TD run after Persa's INT). Although NU looked respectable against the run earlier in the season, they were gashed by the ground game on Saturday night, and there was no looking back for Penn State.

"most importantly, the Northwestern secondary has to get its act together and at the very least get on the same page. Don't leave guys wide open and NU will at least have a shot.

The Northwestern pass defense didn't have huge coverage breakdowns in this game, but they weren't exactly great either with Dugar getting flat out beat by the speedy Devon Smith for a 45 yard TD completion. Also, McGloin had another solid performance against the 'Cats as he did what he was asked and not much more, passing for 192 yards and 2 TDs as they kept a nice balance between the pass and the run (37 rush attempts to 28 passes, accounting for NU's one sack). Northwestern started David Arnold at safety in place of Ibraheim Campbell (who did still play in nickel sets), but Arnold was later pulled in favor of Jared Carpenter, who finished the game. Also, Demetrius Dugar (who has been the starter for two games in place of Jeravin Matthews) was pulled for Mike Bolden later in the game. Northwestern's defense allowed just 91 second half yards with the only score coming on a short field after the interception return, so one would hope this would lead to the right mix of personnel to see some improvement down the stretch.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB/WR Kain Colter (2-of-2 passing for 18 yards, 7 carries for 79 yards and 1 TD without sacks, 6 receptions for 43 yards and 1 TD) Although Colter did take two very costly sacks after Persa came out of the game, he had an overall very solid game with two touchdowns: one receiving (his first of the year) and one rushing (to lead NU on the year with six). His 46 yard run kept NU in the game and he showed off his multifaceted skills throughout the game and will continue to grow as a weapon for the 'Cats.

Things to Work on

Half to Half Consistency

This season, the 'Cats are averaging almost 5 fewer points in the second halves of games when compared to the first, while the defense is allowing 4.3 more points per game in the second halves of games. Although the defense strengthened in the second half against PSU's hit-or-miss offense, the offense failed to produce any points (much like its last home game performance against Michigan), and the Wildcats have yet to put together a consistent 60-minute performance during their current five game losing streak. And it's particularly frustrating when NU is in a position to potentially win the game.


Northwestern is 114th nationally in sacks allowed (3.4 per game) and 81st in sacks (1.6 per game) with just one sack over their previous seven halves of play (dating back to halftime of the Illinois game). This is particularly important because NU is 2-0 when generating more sacks than their opponent and 0-5 when having the same number or fewer sacks in the 2011 season. Both lines have been underwhelming as of late, and that is something that must change if NU wants to try and turn things around in their final five games.

Random Observations

JoePa Milestones

Joe Paterno racked up yet another milestone against Northwestern: this time, he tied Eddie Robinson's Division I win record (408) after hitting the 400 win milestone in last year's meeting and tying Paul "Bear" Bryant's then-FBS (I-A) record in 2001. As Fitz said in the postgame, everyone has the utmost respect for Paterno and what he exemplifies, but it sure is frustrating that it keeps happening against NU.


After last year's huge jump in attendance (over 50% year to year), Northwestern has seen a continued increase of 6% in its first three contests of 2011, though it will be interesting to see what happens to those numbers over the final three games (all in potentially blustery November) against a non-conference opponent (Rice), a particularly bad team (Minnesota), and a Saturday-after-Thanksgiving game against Michigan State. This is where NU's disappointing record may really begin to hurt the crowds.

Final Thought

This game certainly showed that Northwestern is not a good football team; as many coaches say: "you are what your record says you are" and NU is now 2-5. But, once again, the 'Cats were right in it until the end and a couple of big plays that went against them ended up costing NU the game. This year, Northwestern just has almost no margin for error, and unfortunately they have been making errors and those have really cost them (offensive meltdown at Army, coverage breakdowns against Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa, second half turnovers against Michigan, and very costly interceptions against Iowa and PSU that yielded 10 or more point swings against NU).

But, Northwestern will have a shot at redemption with three win-able games remaining (Indiana, Rice, Minnesota): if they can upset either Nebraska or Michigan State, they could still reach the promised land of bowl eligibility. While this season is most certainly a disappointment, the most disappointing season for NU since 2001, the 'Cats have the players and the ability to regroup and make something good happen down the stretch. One certainly hopes the seniors on this team can lead the charge towards that goal to keep some kind of momentum going for the Northwestern football program.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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