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Turning Point: A Goal Line Stand Prevents Illinois Deja-Vu

A 10-point Penn State lead remained such through the remainder of the game, thanks to the defense stepping up big time.

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Let’s set the scene here for a moment: It’s early in the fourth quarter, Penn State had started the quarter with Jake Pinegar nailing a 38-yard field goal to put the Nittany Lions back ahead by two scores at 17-7 on a sloppy, rain-soaked afternoon that saw PSU turn the ball over four times by this point, keeping a 25-point underdog Northwestern squad within a puncher’s chance of pulling off a stunning upset.

The Wildcats started the ensuing drive from their own 25 yard-line following a touchback and proceeded to march down field, aided by a couple of dumb PSU penalties (one for roughing the passer, another going offsides on a 3rd and 5 situation that gave Northwestern a fresh set of downs). On 3rd and 8 from PSU’s 33, Wildcat quarterback Ryan Hilinski dropped back to pass and against all odds, threw what looked like the equivalent of a basketball player launching a half-court shot deep towards the right sideline, with the ball somehow landing in the hands of his receiver, Malik Washington, inside the PSU 10. Washington, who had scored Northwestern’s lone TD earlier in the second half, had the Wildcats set up in prime position to make it a one-score game again, triggering PSU fans’ PTSD from last year’s inexplicable upset loss to Illinois.

With a first and goal from the PSU 9, Hilinski misfired on first and second down. On third down, he hit Washington on a screen pass, which Washington nearly took into the end zone, but was stopped right around the one-yard line. Perhaps if the screen pass fell incomplete or if Washington was stopped a few yards shorter, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald might have opted to just kick the field goal and take the points. Instead, he made the obvious decision to try and go for the end zone or bust, as Hilinski attempted to sneak through the middle of the pile but was stopped just inches short of the goal line.

Northwestern had a few more possessions after the failed goal line conversion, but would never get any closer to the end zone than from PSU’s 42-yard line, as twice the Nittany Lion defense came up with a clutch fourth down pass breakup to take over on downs. Eventually, PSU would run out the final five-and-a-half minutes off the clock and escape with an ugly 17-7 win.

Had Hilinski successfully penetrated his way into the end zone, Northwestern would have likely only needed a field goal at that point in order to force overtime and who knows what would’ve transpired in the OT period...Thank goodness we will never have to find out though, thanks to Manny Diaz’s defense stepping up when they absolutely needed to the most.