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37 Random Thoughts on Northwestern

Random musings on the weekend that was in Evanston against the Wildcats

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The Penn State Nittany Lions played the Northwestern Wildcats in an American football contest on Saturday. Northwestern, which was ranked amongst the top 25 American football teams in the nation and was favored by 3 points, won said contest. The internet exploded because of this monumental upset. I have some thoughts. They are as follows:

  1. I am contractually obligated to discuss the weather. The weather in Evanston was perfectly acceptable. Overcast, but comfortable for a November kick.
  2. The weather likely had no impact on the team's performance this week. I suppose the overcast nature could have cast an emotional pall over the American football festivities.
  3. Seriously though, no rain is a pleasant surprise after all of the issues we had earlier in the year.

  4. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the lazy feeling of a noon kickoff in Evanston, but the atmosphere felt lifeless throughout the first half. James Franklin spoke about this repeatedly with the media last week (in a much more polite fashion) and it still managed to bite the Nits this week. It's inexplicable.
  5. Equally inexplicable - Christian Hackenberg's 1-10 start out of the gate. A week after perhaps his most complete game of the year, Hack struggled to get much going. These are the kind of performances that produce articles that proclaim him to be a "project" rather than a prospect at the next level.
  6. Seriously though, the weather was fine.
  7. I was concerned with the energy level in the first half. This felt very late-era Paterno-esque to me.
  8. That pick by Jason Cabinda was beautiful and very well-timed.
  9. No one like to see players get hurt, particularly college players. That said, I don't know a Penn Stater that didn't like the Nits chances when Clayton Thorson went down with an injury. You had to believe that an offense that struggled mightily to put points on the board in the best of circumstances would be severely limited with a back-up quarterback against the Penn State defense.
  10. Boy, was I wrong there.
  11. The second quarter was a horror show, but the drive near the end of the second quarter seemed to put us back in range. 13-7 appeared quite manageable.

  12. The biggest meltdown on Twitter occurred on the kick return. This was fascinating, because the Internet Lion Community ("ILC") decided to point the finger of blame at the coaching staff.
  13. I'll blame the staff for a lot, but generally speaking, I've been fairly content with our coverage teams this year. Can someone explain how it's James Franklin's fault if the officials miss a blatant hold in the middle of the field and Northwestern manages to make a big play?
  14. The ILC is exhausting. Penn State pessimism is out in full force. It's halftime and we're down by 13. We didn't play well, but we're within striking distance. Absent the blown kick coverage, we're down 6 at the half.  Take a breath, everyone.
  15. The meltdown continued after the first possession of the 3rd quarter. That's remarkable patience.
  16. I think the defensive line played well and the secondary performed admirably. The linebackers were out of position and, a week after their best performance, failed to tackle well. Credit to Justin Jackson and the aforementioned Zack Oliver, but it really is infuriating to watch a talented defense struggle like this.
  17. Congratulations to Carl Nassib on becoming Penn State's single-season sack leader, and doing it with 2 regular season contest and a bowl game left. He beat the tackle like a drum on that play and Oliver took a wicked shot that probably have Troy Smith deja vu. What a hit.
  18. Geno Lewis threw the best pass I've seen in years. And he bobbled the ball on the exchange and was hit as he threw. That was a laser.
  19. Those trick plays have worked time and time again this year. They provide lots of excitement and create an instant momentum swing, which is exactly what this team needed.
  20. The drive to put Penn State up 21-20 was a textbook 2015 Nittany Lion drive - big run by Barkley, big screen play by Barkley with nice touch from Hack, a big throw by Hack, and a 13-yard Wildcat run to the right side by Barkley, complete with a jaw-dropping cut.  It finally looked like the team was in rhythm.
  21. Chris Godwin with another outstanding performance.  DaeSean Hamilton looked good too.  I dig our wide receiver corps and can't wait to see what the young guys look like as they come up too.
  22. There are multiple plays and calls that were the difference in a 2-point ballgame.  That's always the case.  But the overarching theme of this game and this year is the loss of the field position battle. A tip of the cap to Jeff Rice from Lions 24/7, who decided to do the math and found that the Nittany Lions' average starting field position was their own 23-yard line, including three times starting inside their own 10.  Counting on this offense, which struggles with consistency, to regularly drive 77 yards for a score is asking too much.  Special teams is a real problem this year and has been the cause of many of the issues that we so desperately hope to see fixed.
  23. But still, we have to look at the plays and calls that defined the end of the game.  We had multiple opportunities to salt this game away and simply failed to do it.
  24. Take, for instance, that interception from Hackenberg.  What a frustrating play; ill-timed and a poor pass.  Momentum had noticeably shifted, Penn State was in complete control of the game, and looked to be on its way to ending the game.  At the very least, the team would have kept field position flipped and given the defense more to work with.  Instead, we breathed life into a Northwestern team that looked to be on life support.
  25. How about when Deandre Thompkins let a punt that could have been fair caught at the 18-yard line roll down to the 6?  Another special teams mistake that cost the Nittany Lions field position and changes the entire dynamic of the Lions final offensive drive.
  26. I don't have any issue with giving the ball to Saquon Barkley on the 3rd-and-1 on the final drive.  He's The Truth.  He was money through the entire second half with the ball in his hands.  You have to expect that he'll gain a yard.  It's easy in hindsight to look for a naked bootleg for Hackenberg on that play, but with the game on the line and needing a yard, it's completely logical to go to your best player and the one most likely to shake a tackle or juke a defender to get a yard.
  27. That said, I hated the Wildcat call there.  It was far too predictable, and faking to Brandon Polk there only served to delay forward action.  Northwestern's defense is very good and they were already coming downhill.  Get the ball in Barkley's hands as quickly as possible.  Run him straight up the middle with a running start, or run the toss sweep that's been very effective.
  28. Leaving the ball in the hands of your punter and your defense up 1 with little chance to get the ball back was too reminiscent of last year's Maryland game for me.  It was as if we learned exactly nothing from that experience.
  29. I don't mind the exotic fronts or the excessive pressure from the defense on the final drive.  Grant Haley dropped a pick he make 9 times out of 10, and that ball was thrown specifically because of the enormous pressure exerted by the front 7.  That play gets made and the game is over then and there.
  30. Blown coverage on 3rd-and-15 ended the game in the entirely opposite manner.  Credit to Oliver for making that pass under fire.
  31. I don't know if James Franklin's clock management was the moment that cost us the game; my sense is that the game was over when Haley dropped that interception.  I do know that it is a senseless mistake to make, and something at which he simply has to be better.  Otherwise, he's going to be the subject of this criticism for as long as he remains Penn State's head coach.
  32. The ILC is hard to engage with after losses like this.  Cari's post from yesterday should be mandatory reading for every Penn Stater.  Most people picked 8-4 or 7-5 this year, then get frustrated when this team, filled with young (talented, but young) players, plays like a team that should go 7-5.  Northwestern was ranked, at home, a 3 point favorite, and already had Stanford (a better team than us) and Duke (potentially a better team than us) this year.  Somehow, Penn Staters have decided that we "should never lose to [insert team name here]" because we're Penn State and they're [Temple/Northwestern/whoever].
  33. I am disappointed with the way this game played out.  We had a chance for a signature win (although I will say that there would likely be those who would claim that "Northwestern was never any good anyway") and we blew it.  There were individual player errors and coaching errors that led to it.  That's frustrating.
  34. Still, the trend line is up.  This team needs a week off in the worst way just to recharge their bodies.  We have another great opportunity against a very good Michigan team for this season's signature win.  Line 'em up.
  35. We are...