Post-Game Analysis: Penn State
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1) lost their first game of the 2012 season to the Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0) by a final score of 28-39 as PSU scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter after NU took a 28-17 lead into the final frame. There's a lot to say about this game, but we should all start by taking a deep breath.

Although this is yet another example of Northwestern failing to make good on a national ranking which they did by giving up a big lead in the second half, this is certainly not a death knell to the program or the season. NU is at the very least on par with expectations heading into the season and will play a winnable game next week that will give the 'Cats a chance to gain bowl eligibility. Also, Northwestern still controls its own destiny in the race for a Legends Division crown, with the rest of the conference looking like a mess, and NU missing OSU, which is clearly the best team in the conference, the Wildcats will have an opportunity to make noise in the division race and make it to a higher profile bowl if they can improve from here.

Speaking of improvement, there is certainly room to do so, but things are not as dour as they looked on Saturday. One must credit the NU defense for hanging in there and keeping the 'Cats in the game until late: Bill O'Brien had an excellent game plan to attack NU along the perimeter as Matt McGloin went to a horizontal passing game to move the football while PSU moved the ball well on the ground especially after wearing down the NU defense late. But NU allowed just 17 points heading into the fourth quarter and did not allow any explosion plays to allow Penn State to run away and hide like they have in previous meetings.

Instead, the primary issue in this game was the performance of the offense, particularly QB Trevor Siemian, who finished at 21-of-36 (58% completion rate) with just 135 yards and 1 TD on the day. Many bemoan the NU coaching staff's choice to go to Siemian at QB over Kain Colter, who got just 8 touches on the day and did not attempt a pass, as the ground game was relatively effective but also relatively unused (NU averaged 4.5 yards per carry, including 5.5 from Venric Mark, though NU had just 25 rushes and just 13 from Mark). But the fact is that the coaches made a conscious decision to stick to the passing game against a talented and stout defensive front that PSU possesses, and NU stayed aggressive by going to the air even with a lead. The issue truly came down to the performance of the redshirt sophomore Siemian who just plain had a bad game; whether it was the pressure, the crowd noise, or the wind, he was flustered all day and couldn't seem to make the right decision on where to throw the football. The 'Cats had just one drive of 10+ plays (PSU had 4 such drives) which completely threw the NU offense out of its usual rhythm. If NU had been able to hit on just some of those passes, particularly in the second half, nobody would be complaining about the game plan today.

In the end, this game presents an opportunity for improvement and the Wildcats could certainly beat anyone on their remaining schedule (the only team with fewer than 2 losses as of now is Minnesota, where NU travels next week). NU has shown intra-season improvement in previous seasons and the offense is certainly capable of coming out of its shell, particularly against some of the more porous defenses that are coming up on the schedule. Essentially all of the team's goals remain on the table (I dont know of anyone who had a 13-0 team heading to a national championship game as a realistic goal) and NU now has even more motivation to improve and play to win in its remaining games.

Player of the Game: PSU QB Matt McGloin (35-of-51 for 282 passing yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; 1 TD rushing) It's hard not to give this one to McGloin as he has put the 'Cats to bed for the third consecutive season. Over those three games, he has thrown for 699 yards and 7 TDs while running for another. He was the reason that PSU was able to convert 5-of-6 fourth downs, including numerous conversions during their fourth quarter comeback. Credit to McGloin as he stuck with the game plan and made plays when he needed to in order for Penn State to pull off the comeback win.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions: RB/KR/PR Venric Mark (13 carries for 72 yards, 1 TD; 1 punt return for 72 yards & TD; 2 kick returns for 36 yards), S Ibraheim Campbell (14 tackles, 2 pass break-ups).

What to Work on:
Passing (Siemian): I'm still a believer in NU's 2 QB system, although Siemian must shore up his decision making in the pass game in order for NU to be successful. He had issues throwing into coverage, overthrowing some receivers (some of whom managed to come down with the ball thanks to the effort of the WR), and holding onto the ball for too long and/or missing open guys. It's vital to have a quick decision maker in an offense like NU's with limited pass protection and a number of targets.
Tackling: Overall the defense was in position to make plays but at times tackling left a lot to be desired, particularly against the run game. There were quite a few yards after contact and that includes NU's inability to bring down the opposing QB (though NU did somehow win the sack battle 2-1). This must improve, particularly against some of the solid runners the 'Cats will face the rest of the way.
Overall Improvement: The first loss is always tough, especially when it comes after reeling off five straight wins, but NU has shown a great ability to respond to those losses in the past (think of NU's three recent conference championship seasons) and it must do so again now. This is still an overall young team and the opportunity is certainly there for improvement since we've seen flashes of greatness early on. Now they must put it together, and there are at least six more chances to do so.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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