It is hard to overstate how difficult it is to win in Happy Valley. The No. 24 Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) learned that the hard way on Saturday, falling to the Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0) for their first loss of the season, 39-28.
While Northwestern came into the game with a spotless record, a multi-dimensional offense and a strong defensive front seven, they frequently looked confused and unprepared on both sides of the ball against a Penn State squad that pounded the Wildcats defense with big runs, slippery screen passes and an aggressive game plan necessitated by their less-than-proficient kicker Sam Ficken.
Things started off slowly for both sides at Beaver Stadium, as Penn State failed to capitalize on an otherwise successful opening drive that brought them within field goal range. However, a false start and a lack of confidence in Ficken brought Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien to call for a punt. The punt was downed at the Northwestern 1-yard line and the Wildcats went three-and-out on their first drive.
Penn State brought the ball back to red zone on their next drive, which ended in a 21-yard field goal from Ficken.
Down 3-0, the ‘Cats went three-and-out three more times before Penn State running back Zach Zwinak (121 rushing yards, 1 touchdown) scored on a one-yard rush for the first touchdown of the game.
The lethargic Wildcat offense finally scored when Penn State’s Jesse Della Valle muffed a 26-yard punt from Brandon Williams. Northwestern recovered it at the Penn State 17-yard line and scored on a two-yard run from running back Venric Mark (72 rushing yards, 1 touchdown).
From there, Northwestern managed to contain Penn State and score again before the half, this time on an 11-yard touchdown pass from starting quarterback Trevor Siemian to wide receiver Tony Jones. The touchdown, Siemian’s only of the day, gave the ‘Cats a 14-10 lead going into halftime.
The Wildcats started off the second half with the ball, but the same problems that limited their success in the first half – poor passing and overly conservative play calling – prevailed until Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin connected with wide receiver Allen Robinson for a touchdown.
With the score 17-14 Penn State, the Northwestern offense picked up steam on a 71-yard drive completed by a 10-yard rush from quarterback Kain Colter. Northwestern scored again when Mark returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown.
The Wildcats led 28-17 going into the fourth quarter and with all of the momentum on their side. But just as soon as the ‘Cats got back on a winning track, the wheels came off of the train to a 6-0 start.
Penn State would score 22 unanswered points in the final quarter of play thanks to passing and rushing touchdowns from McGloin and a game-sealing rush from running back Michael Zordich.
While the emotionally charged Nittany Lions were able to drive down the field to come back and fend off Northwestern, the Wildcats looked hapless and hopeless as their undefeated season came to a miserable end in Happy Valley.
Here's what we learned from the game:
1) The quarterback situation is still in a state of flux
It has been hard to get a read on just what exactly Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald plans to do with his two starting quarterbacks, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Based on the ‘Cats success against Indiana last week at Ryan Field, the plan on Saturday seemed to call for Siemian to pass and Colter to run.
But as Siemian failed to find a groove, consistently overthrowing targets and avoiding near-interceptions, Fitzgerald kept Colter in an auxiliary receiver role and barely utilized Northwestern’s most dangerous offensive weapon: the Colter-Mark option.
It is unclear what impact Saturday’s game will have on Northwestern’s quarterback situation, but logic would dictate a greater reliance on Colter in the pocket than in the in slot.
2) Sometimes the Wildcats need to get wild
While Fitzgerald expressed concern that his squad might be too fired up before Saturday’s game, the play-calling of the Wildcat coaching staff was awfully conservative.
Penn State looked ready to diffuse anything the Wildcats brought offensively and as both the passing game and running game failed to achieve any consistent momentum, the lack of option plays involving Colter and Mark were alarmingly conspicuous.
Defensively, the Northwestern front seven looked vulnerable for the first time all season and the secondary gave Penn State plenty of room up front as McGloin scrambled away.
For the Wildcats to fully realize their ability, their coaches need to fully utilize their playbook and take advantage of their strengths.
3) The ‘Cats still have a long road ahead of them
As easy as it was to get wrapped up in excitement of being ranked – which will no longer be the case on Sunday morning – it is important to remember how hard the road ahead can be for Northwestern.
There is no question that the ‘Cats have the potential to do big things, but it isn’t known for sure whether or not they will be able to live up to that potential as the schedule gradually gets tougher, with games against Nebraska and at Michigan and Michigan State still upcoming.
Inconsistencies on both sides of the ball still impact every game this team plays and for a team that bent but didn’t break until Saturday, the full impact of this loss won’t be known until next weekend.
The Wildcats will stay on the road next week when they head to north Minneapolis to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1, 0-1). The Gophers are coming off a 31-13 loss to Iowa but have had a week off to prepare for Northwestern. The Wildcats have beaten Minnesota in each of the past two seasons.