It’s almost too easy to predict what’s going to happen in a Northwestern football game. The ‘Cats will play one half of tremendous football that makes you step back and think, “Hey, that’s a good team.” Then there’ll be a crucial injury and everything will unravel.
That’s what happened Saturday evening when Northwestern hosted Penn State on parents’ weekend. After leading 13-10 at halftime, the ‘Cats fell apart as the Nittany Lions exploded for a huge second half en route to a 34-13 victory.
Northwestern played without star senior quarterback Mike Kafka the entire second half and sophomore Dan Persa was unable to move the ball effectively down the field. Penn State took advantage of great field position and put up 24 points in the second half.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald attributes the second half collapse to a shift in attitude and composure, rather than on having Persa in at quarterback.
“It’s about big plays and execution and playing physical and doing it for 60 minutes, and as a coaching staff we’re not getting guys to do that consistently enough, and that’s on us,” Fitzgerald said. “We lost our attitude, and when you lose your attitude, you lose your stinger and you lose your physicality.”
The difference between the first and second half, though, was tremendous. Kafka completed more than 77 percent of his passes for 128 yards, adding 46 yards and a touchdown with his legs. He moved the ball down the field with grace, hitting open receivers routinely and taking off with his feet when there was nothing available.
Persa, on the other hand, was questionable. He completed barely more than 60 percent of his passes for 115 yards, although he did add 42 yards on the ground. While Northwestern converted 15 first downs in the first half, the Persa-led offense could only produce nine first downs in the second half, including two three and out drives.
Although Fitzgerald didn’t blame Persa, the young quarterback put the weight of the game on his shoulders.
“I didn’t play hard enough to get the win, and that’s what matters,” Persa said. “Penn State is a top team and it’s good experience, but it still doesn’t excuse how I played. I didn’t get it done.”
There were some bright spots for the ‘Cats, though. The team showed that it could compete with one of the best teams in the nation, and actually looked like the better team after the first half. Senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen continued his impressive year, with nine receptions for 60 yards while fellow senior wide receiver Andrew Brewer added 65 yards on six catches of his own.
Defensively, the ‘Cats were fairly dominant in the first half, showing impressive composure in the red zone. After the break, Penn State had little to no trouble moving the ball. Senior quarterback Daryll Clark had only 99 yards passing in the first half, and the Nittany Lions combined for only 37 yards on the ground in the half as well. The second half was clearly a different story, as Clark ended the game with 274 yards passing and Penn State exploded for 163 yards rushing, with three touchdowns on the ground to boot.
The ‘Cats played without star senior cornerback Sherrick McManis, who was sidelined with a leg injury. Sophomore walk-on Ricky Weina played in his place, recording five tackles and a pass break-up after an impressive performance last week against Indiana.
“[Weina] made a couple plays and was in the right places at the right time,” senior safety Brad Phillips said. “I didn’t expect any less because of what he did in practice this week.”
Phillips said that he felt like a “broken record” because of how many collapses Northwestern has had this season.
“We just didn’t do our job in the fourth quarter. Penn State took advantage of us when we didn’t make plays. Teams have been taking advantage of us when we haven’t been doing our jobs appropriately.”
Read our liveblog of Saturday’s game below.