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When Penn State trailed by 11 heading into the fourth quarter, it was easy to count the Nittany Lions out. But Bill O'Brien and Matt McGloin and the rest of this team just won't let you do that.
David Jones wrote a tremendous article last week, after Penn State beat Illinois. He talked about how Bill O'Brien's coaching staff has taken the script that Penn State played by for the better part of the past decade, and flipped it on its head.
About how they're putting players in the best position to succeed. About how the offense and the defense are aggressive and efficient and feed off one another with pure manic energy. About how nobody's afraid to take chances.
They're playing with house money, and they know it.
Today's come-from-behind win symbolized everything this staff has imbued into these Nittany Lions, and that's why it's unlike any Penn State game in recent memory. It was tough. And it was frustrating. But at the end, most of all, it was pretty damned fun.
Just when we thought we could count Penn State out, they went and did something none of us saw coming. And we've never been so happy to be wrong.
To prove it, here's the first couple paragraphs of the recap I'd started writing in the third quarter:
Before today, Penn State had already lost two games in painful, excruciating fashion.
So why does this still feel so frustrating?
Maybe it's because, when push comes to shove, these Nittany Lions just can't get out of their own way. Because the special teams struggles which have been bubbling under the surface just waiting to reemerge once again proved fatal.
Because today really should have countered everything the detractors have been saying, that Penn State's three wins came against terrible teams and this team really isn't that good.
For the most of the first half, it certainly felt that way. Northwestern's offense racked up more than 700 yards last week against Indiana, but the Nittany Lions defense, led by a dominant Gerald Hodges, forced four straight three-and-outs to start the game. The offense wasn't sharp, but it did enough to amass a 10-0 lead. It wasn't a comfortable lead, but it was a cushion.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't prove to be a big enough one, and the worst part is, you could kind of see it coming.
Like David Jones, I made the fatal flaw of assuming that this 2012 Penn State team would bear more than just a passing resemblance to the previous versions I've come to know. But just as some revered traditions went by the wayside--there are, remember, names on the jerseys now--so too did the ones we've long hoped to shrug off.
I mean, is there anyone out there who thinks that Penn State would've won this game last year? And is there another game on the schedule that you don't think this Penn State team can win?
It's cost Penn State a game this season, but maybe the transfer of Anthony Fera is going to help this team in the long run. Matt McGloin is taking better care of the football, but he's still a gunslinger at heart. And you can tell that Bill O'Brien loves to roll the dice, and as the two have come together, they've created a happy marriage that's turned this offense from unwatchable to juggernaut in less than a year. Penn State was listless for large swaths of the second and third quarters...and they still finished with 39 points.
Ted Roof's defense looked at times futile in its attempts to stop this talented Northwestern offense during the middle of this game...but taking away the short field touchdown and punt return, and they held a phenomenally talented, versatile unit to just 247 yards and two scores, one of which was aided by the worst pass interference call you'll see all season. And on the last drives of the game, when they really needed to, they got a three-and-out and a four-and-out and then that was the win.
I'll have more on this spectacular, unbelievable game, including the grades, later. But after a win as refreshing and exhilarating and inspiring and just awesome as that, they seem to matter a whole hell of a lot less.
Quarterbacks: B+. For three quarters, we got the bad Matt McGloin. It wasn't that he was forcing passes or turning the ball over, or even that he was missing open receivers. But he just never seemed comfortable in the pocket, looked to check down, and appeared to be confused by a Northwestern defense that alternatively blitzed and dropped 8 into coverage. But then you have the McGloin who ran the last two drives to perfection, who fit the ball into tight windows when Penn State absolutely needed him to, and man, was that the good McGloin or what?
Running Backs: B+. Bill Belton disappeared after starting the game and getting four carries on the opening drive, and somehow the depth and the running-back-by-committee turned into all Zach Zwinak, all the time. Hell, it worked--to the tune of 121 yards on 28 carries--and Mike Zordich continued to do his thing on limited touches. You just have to hope that turning him into a workhorse won't diminish Zwinak's ability to rumble through defenses.
Receivers: B. There was some terrible drops early--two from Kyle Carter, one of which turned a touchdown drive into three points. And you'd have to assume an inability to get open prevented Penn State from throwing downfield for most of the game. But Allen Robinson had the kind of awesome performance we've come to expect from him--9 catches, 85 yards, 2 TDs--to headline a solid, if unspectacular day from the rest of the group--though Alex Kenney was conspicuously silent, which played a role in Penn State's early third down struggles.
Offensive Line: B+. Bill O'Brien and Mac McWhorter continue to try a rotation at left guard and right tackle, but once they stopped fiddling, this unit improved significantly. Early on, running lanes were scant and the pocket collapsed with regularity, but as Penn State turned it around in the second half, mainly with the hurry-up, McGloin was well-protected and the backs got the opportunity to run downhill.
Defensive Line: B. Last year, Penn State managed 7 sacks of Dan Persa. Today, Siemian was sacked but once. But the line generated good enough pressure, especially early, to keep Northwestern out of rhythm, and Jordan Hill swallowed up a couple gives up the middle. On the other hand, both Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan had a whole lot of trouble containing the edge against Kain Colter options...but can you blame them?
Linebackers: A. It's been all Mauti for this team the last few weeks, but today, Gerald Hodges was the star. He attacked the line, he patrolled the middle of the field, and even matched up well against Kain Colter in the slot on occasion. When Northwestern had success offensively, it was using the edges of the field, because Penn State dominated the middle of it.
Secondary: A. This was, without any shred of doubt, the best game we've seen from the Penn State defensive backfield. Trevor Siemian is as good a quarterback as the Lions have played, and he was held to 3.8 yards per attempt--135 yards on 36 passes. That's pretty damn good. Twice he tried to pick on Stephon Morris deep, and twice Morris made the play--despite a horrifically terrible pass interference call on one. And let's not forget the silent turning point of this game: Malcolm Willis' outstanding tackle in the flat to prevent a long third down conversion and get the Wildcats' offense off the field.
Special Teams: F+. Well, there's not much you can say about this that wouldn't just be rehashing the obvious; Jesse Della Valle muffed a punt in his own red zone, and Venric Mark took one 75 yards to the house. Both mistakes nearly proved fatal. But hey, Sam Ficken did make a field goal (albeit a 21-yarder) and of Alex Butterworth's five punts, two were downed inside the 10 (one at the 1-yard line). So...positives?
Coaching: A+. You really can't give Bill O'Brien enough credit for what he's doing with this team. But it's not just the intangibles--his decisions to go for it on fourth down keyed the victory--Penn State converted five of six attempts, including every single one of the ones he needed to have. Ted Roof deserves some credit, too--he's figuring out what pieces he has on defense, and he's starting to push the right buttons, especially with his blitz packages.