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Hey, Wha Happen: Penn State 21, Northwestern 23

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Northwestern snatched victory out of Penn State's hands in a game the Nittany Lions probably didn't deserve.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

A week after Penn State shut out Illinois on Halloween, the Nittany Lions faced a fright of their own, losing on a last second field goal to No. 21 Northwestern. It was a tale of the two halves, as in the first, the Nittany Lions looked listless and disorganized, finishing the first 30 minutes down 20-7. Penn State put up 14 points in the second half, but were bested by bad clock management and the repercussions of a late-starting offense.

The only positive yards Penn State gained on their first possession were a five-yard Saquon Barkley run on first down. From there, a defensive assist by a referee who was hit with a Christian Hackenberg pass and a false start on third down gave Penn State one of their first three-and-outs to start the afternoon game in Evanston.

The Nittany Lions almost recovered a miffed punt from Northwestern, but the ball could not be corralled and the Wildcats took over without much resistance. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson looked sharp early, connecting on two big passes, an 18-yard throw that started the Wildcats' day and then a 26-yard over the middle pass that brought the home team down to the Penn State 25. The Wildcats stalled, thanks to a Northwestern drop and a missed Penn State interception, and they missed their 39-yard field goal because #CollegeKickers.

After another Penn State three-and-out, the defense came out strong with a Brandon Bell sack on first down for a loss of nine that kept Northwestern from any forward momentum. The Nittany Lions looked to continue their string of three-and-outs, but a controversial unnecessary roughness call on a Hackenberg sack on third down with eight minutes left in the first gave Penn State a fresh set of downs to work with. However, the new downs didn't help one bit, as the offense continued to misfire, with a Mike Gesicki drop on first down and a long ball intended for Saeed Blacknall missed by the wide receiver.

Later in the quarter after more Penn State offensive frustration, Northwestern received the ball with wonderful field position at their 44. Thorson connected to Christian Jones on a third and 10 for 13 yards after the receiver gained separation on Jordan Lucas, however, the quarterback went down after the Nittany Lion defense got to him too many times. Backup Zach Oliver took the helm for Northwestern and after marching down to the Penn State 36 on a few screen passes, the Nittany Lions locked in and stalled the Wildcats on a third and 17.

The Nittany Lion offense ineptitude continued after a false start penalty turned a 3rd and 1 play into a 3rd and 6. Penn State ended the first punting the ball back to the Wildcats after scoring zero points in the first quarter for the first time this season. Northwestern finally put some points on the board after Warren Long broke through a 3rd and 1 for the games biggest play of 35 yards to set the Wildcats up in the Penn State red zone early in the second. Oliver's 14 yard over the middle pass to Jones put the Wildcats on top 7-0 with 12:56 to go in the quarter.

There was a glimmer of hope that Penn State found a way to crack Northwestern's defense on their next possession. An 18-yard reception by Chris Godwin to midfield was caught high, but extended Penn State's drive on a 2nd and 3. On the next down, Penn State picked up their first 3rd down conversion of the day not from a penalty with a four Barkley run. However, like the drives before, the offense could not overcome their own mistakes with a crucial false start penalty on first down that gave Penn State an insurmountable 15 yard down to convert.

Any momentum Penn State seemed to have was immediately snuffed out on Northwestern's next drive. Running back Justin Jackson went 48 yards down the left sideline for the game's biggest play out of the gate to start the Wildcat possession. Penn State's Grant Haley committed a pass interference penalty on the next play, giving Northwestern a fresh set of downs at the Penn State 28. From there, another big Jackson run -- this time for 25 yards -- brought Northwestern within sniffing distance of a score. Quarterback Oliver faked a handoff and ran for the touchdown with six minutes left in the quarter, with the only saving grace for Penn State a missed extra point that gave the Wildcats the 13-0 lead.

On a drive that looked to be dead in the water thanks to another Gesicki drop, a 3rd and 5 run and catch by Barkley for 31 yards set Penn State up in Northwestern territory. Godwin picked up a 20 yard reception to put Penn State down below the Northwestern 10 yard line and Barkley finished off the drive with a direct snap on the wildcat for a seven yard up the middle run for a touchdown that put the Nittany Lions down by six with less than three to go in the half.

However, Northwestern took no time to respond, immediately returning the next kickoff 96 yards on Solomon Vault's quick scamper down the field for the 20-7 Wildcat score. Penn State ended the half with a Hackenberg sack on third down, a development that would have surprised no one given the first 30 minutes that had transpired.

Penn State and Northwestern played more give and take through the third quarter, with the Wildcats rolling down to Nittany Lion territory, failing to convert, then pinning the visitors behind their 10 yard line. Northwestern's Jackson broke through for a 30 yard run after another failed Penn State drive, but kicker Jack Mitchell missed yet another field goal, this time from 47 yards.

The Nittany Lions found life thanks to some key Northwestern mistakes. When Penn State failed to convert another drive, Northwestern took a costly roughing the kicker penalty after knocking down Chris Gulla. Then, on a Hackenberg run, the Wildcats committed another personal foul penalty to put Penn State down at the 32. To cap off the crazy drive, Lewis took the broken pass from Hackenberg, looped around, and threw to Desean Hamilton on the trick play for the touchdown, putting the Nittany Lions within reach 14-20 with 5:04 to play in the third.

Just as Northwestern was looking to drive again, Jason Cabinda picked off a bobbling interception on the game's first turnover at the Penn State 37, turning the momentum completely over to the Nittany Lions. A Hackenberg connection to Hamilton for 25 yards could not overcome a crucial holding penalty on a 3rd and 4, stalling the drive with a minute and a half left in the third.

Penn State got their first and only lead of the game after a key Carl Nassib sack forced Northwestern to punt to start the fourth quarter. Barkley was the key piece on the drive, breaking through for a 23 yard run after a false start penalty on the first play. Hackenberg connected with Godwin on a 26 yard pass to put the Nittany Lions down to the Northwestern 13 and Barkley finished off the drive with none other than a run out of the wildcat to put Penn State up 21-20 with 12:22 to play.

The Wildcats next drive was uneventful but Penn State gave up their first turnover on the following possession. An eight play drive that featured more Barkley magic faltered as Hackenberg was picked off by Nick VanHoose at the Wildcat 32. Northwestern wouldn't be able to do anything with the pick, but their final drive of the afternoon was the most important.

Eating up just over two minutes of clock, Northwestern marched down the field and set up camp at the Penn State 18 with no called timeouts from James Franklin to stall the dive and stop the clock. Mitchell redeemed himself with the 35 yard field goal with nine seconds left and Penn State was fruitless in their final play, a lateral on the kickoff that was fumbled away in the dying seconds.

Three Completely Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts

  1. Man, was the offense hot garbage in the first half. John Donovan's offense did not seem at all prepared to handle Northwestern's defense, who constantly had their hands in passing lanes that it seemed as if almost one out of every three passes were being tipped at the line. The strange play-calling was back, with some of the most bizarre being screens called on second and long plays for a loss of yards. The second half was much better, when Hack was allowed to be Hack and make plays, but it was hard to watch at times during the first two quarters.

  2. Carl Nassib is now Penn State's single season all-time sack leader with 15.5 on the year. However, the senior wasn't on Penn State's last two defensive drives due to a possible injury. While no official word has been given, losing Nassib for any length of time is a huge blow to the defense. Regardless, big congrats to the big senior for getting a record he so rightfully deserves.

  3. The defense did look a bit out of sorts at times too, allowing only 169 passing yards but 227 rushing. With Northwestern's top QB out, the Wildcats had to rely more on the ground game for points but there were more missed tackles and missed assignments that allowed Jackson in particular to gain yards where he shouldn't have.