Northwestern experienced its fifth consecutive loss at home Saturday night at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions. The ‘Cats have not won since their Sept. 10 victory over Eastern Illinois, and sit at 0-4 in Big Ten play.
Although Penn State was favored coming into this weekend’s contest, the Wildcats were able to keep it close before falling in the second half. Here’s a look at the best and worst of Northwestern-Penn State:
Healthy Dan Persa: When Dan Persa is healthy, he’s undeniably one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Persa finished the game 26-34 for 294 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed for a touchdown. Persa lit up the Penn State defense in the first half – the same defense that has only allowed 13.1 points per game all year, good for fifth best in the country. Northwestern’s success through the air allowed the ‘Cats score 24 points in the first half alone; only Alabama scored more points in a full game (27) this season as Northwestern did in the first half. Unfortunately, the ‘Cats were unable to score at all in the second half, but Persa’s play in the first half was stellar.
Kain Colter the receiver: While Colter hasn’t exactly been the best quarterback in recent weeks (see below), he continues to play well as a receiver. Colter caught six passes for 43 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, and continues to excel as a pass-catcher for the ‘Cats. Even though he played the first three games of the season exclusively at quarterback, Colter is Northwestern’s third-leading receiver this season.
Second-half defense: While the offense played very well in the first half, the defense gave up 27 points in that same amount of time, allowing the Nittany Lions to hold a 27-24 lead at the half. In the second half, however, Northwestern’s defense played pretty well overall, only allowing seven points. That touchdown came on Penn State’s first offensive play from scrimmage of the second half, immediately following a Dan Persa interception. The ‘Cats were able to hold PSU scoreless the rest of the game, which was quite impressive considering their poor start. Unfortunately, the defense’s poor play in the first half dug Northwestern in too big a hole.
The crowd: It was homecoming weekend in Evanston, and Northwestern’s crowd was up for the game, even though the ‘Cats have struggled so far this season. Although there were a number of empty seats, the most impressive aspect of the crowd was that it was largely full of purple. Against Michigan earlier this season, for example, maize and blue made up nearly half of the crowd. But based on my entirely unscientific estimations, this particular crowd looked 70 percent purple. Against a big-time program like Penn State, that’s a good number for Northwestern.
First-half defense: Northwestern’s defense in the first half somehow found a way to make Penn State look like the ’99 Rams, also known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.” The Nittany Lions aren’t exactly known to be an explosive offense this season – they only rank 89th in the country in points per game – but they lit up Northwestern for 27 points in the first half, including two touchdown passes from quarterback Matt McGloin.
Second half offense: Against Michigan on Oct. 8, Northwestern put up 24 points in the first half before being shut out in the second half. The Penn State game this Saturday was a similar story, as NU scored 24 points in the first half before putting up a goose egg in the second half. There’s no clear explanation for this decline, but a Dan Persa interception on the first drive of the second half – the ball was intercepted at the 18-yard line of Penn State – killed what looked like a promising drive. With only just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, back to back sacks on Kain Colter after Northwestern moved the ball to the PSU 13-yard line killed what was another good drive (Persa had just exited the game with an injury). The two sacks pushed Northwestern out of field goal range. These crucial missed opportunities on promising possessions were able to sway the game in Penn State’s favor.
Missed deep passes: Dan Persa and Jeremy Ebert are definitely not to blame for this particular loss, as the duo were probably the two best players on the field for Northwestern throughout the game. But in the second half, with Northwestern trailing by ten, Persa threw the ball deep to an open Jeremy Ebert, who had at least a step on his defender. The ball bounced off Ebert’s hands, however, wiping away what would have been a certain touchdown. And late in the game, Trevor Siemian threw deep to Ebert and nearly connected; the ball sailed a little bit deep. If these two deep passes had been converted, we would probably be talking about a Northwestern victory. Obviously, this wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for Northwestern on Saturday, and Persa did complete a deep pass to Ebert late in the first half. But missed deep passes clearly did affect the outcome.
Northwestern’s uniforms: Northwestern broke out new alternate uniforms in honor of Homecoming. The uniforms were purple with black numbering, with silver helmets. The helmets displayed the players’ numbers in black. While many Wildcat supporters have praised the uniforms (based on social media), I must admit that I was not a big fan. It was a little too similar to the uniforms of the Kansas State Wildcats, which are also purple and silver. I would have liked to see some sort of throwback uniform, perhaps to the Otto Graham days. It was nice to see a new look from the ‘Cats, but I was hoping for retro.