No. 21 Northwestern 23, Penn State 21: Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’….

Michael Del Zotto, Henrik Lundqvist, Tyler Ennis

Mistakes come back to haunt Penn State on the road

Quick Hits


Penn State dug a hole early, climbed out of it and then were [pushed right back into it by Northwestern on Saturday. The Nittany Lions put together a rally that would have been a great way to enter a late bye week, but instead Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell sent a 35-yard field goal through the uprights with nine seconds remaining on the mismanaged clock to give the No. 21 Wildcats a 23-21 victory in Evanston. It was a game Penn State had no real business winning for the majority of the afternoon, and was another gut punch of a loss in the early going of the James Franklin era in State College.

Franklin took blame for what could only be described as a total team loss after the head coach admitted to not handling the clock management very well in the final moments of the game. Franklin waited too long to use his timeouts, leaving Penn State with just nine seconds instead of perhaps at least 30 seconds. Of course, Penn State’s loss was scripted well before the 60th minute of the game. The offense got off to a sluggish start against a solid defensive team (let’s not forget Northwestern shut down Stanford earlier this season). Penn State managed just 16 yards of offense in the first quarter on five possessions.

Penn State trailed Northwestern 13-0 midway through the second quarter, at which point the offense finally put together a solid possession. A nine-play drive spanning 78 yards was capped by Saquon Barkley’s seven-yard rushing touchdown out of the wildcat formation. Finally, it seemed, Penn State had figured out how to crack Northwestern and they might just get to halftime with some momentum. That idea was quickly squashed as Solomon Vault returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown to regain Northwestern’s 13-point advantage.

It was that kind of day for Penn State. As soon as things started to fall the right way for the blue and white, Northwestern trumped it. In the fourth quarter, Penn State took its first lead of the game when Barkley rushed for his second score of the game inside the red zone to give Penn State a 21-20 edge with 12 minutes and change to play. A drive that could have tacked on at least three more potential points ended when Christian Hackenberg had a pass intended for Saeed Blacknall picked off by Nick VanHoose, who stepped in front of the perfectly read pass as Blacknall stood waiting for the ball to hit his spot. It was the first interception thrown by Hackenberg in 202 pass attempts and it could not have come at a worse time. Penn State was at the Northwestern 33-yard line. A completed pass likely would have led to a fourth down field goal attempt for a four-point lead. Penn State’s defense did come up with a stop on Northwestern’s possession, but the Wildcats gained the advantage by chalking up a late field possession battle, and this has tended to not go Penn State’s way all year. It didn’t this time either.

With the ball at their own six-yard line and 3:19 to play, Penn State’s offense put the ball in Barkley’s hands. He picked up six yards on first down and three more on second, but on third down he was tripped up for a loss of one yard and Penn State was forced to punt the ball away to the Wildcats, who would get one last chance to claim a victory they seemingly deserved from start to finish. They would start that last possession at their 46-yard line and would quickly be faced with a 3rd and 15 from their own 41-yard line. Zack Oliver, who stepped in to replace an injured Clayton Thorson, completed a 23-yard pass to Austin Carr for a 23-yard gain and a first down.

In the blink of an eye I thought I had flashed back to 1999 when Minnesota threw up a prayer to keep a drive going against top-ranked Penn State. The situation here was different, obviously, but that was the same gut punch kind of play that had to leave most Penn State fans a bit unsettled. There was still a chance though, but Penn State could not prevent Northwestern running back Justin Jackson from picking up seven yards when he only needed five on another key third down play. Jackson’s big first down run put the ball on the Penn State 24-yard line, at which point clock management issues crept up as well.

After a first down play netted just two yards, Penn State called a timeout with 22 seconds left in the game. The play started with 52 ticks on the clock. Penn State wasted no time calling the next two timeouts, but the delay in calling the first left Penn State with just nine seconds to pull out a miracle after Jack Mitchell’s 35-yard field goal try was good for a late 23-21 lead.

It will be games like this that will give validation to the criticisms of Franklin’s weak spots as a head coach. There is no doubt Franklin can recruit and generate buzz and interest, but time and time again the shortfalls of in-game decision making have come back to bite Penn State. With a team lacking in overall talent, coaching has to step up and overcome some situations and problems. It did not do that against Northwestern.

The offense started too slowly. The defense gave up two third-and-long conversions with the game on the line. Clock management was critical. Play calling also left something to be desired as well. It was, as Franklin admitted, a full team loss. Better days are still to come. This was just another bump in the road to that optimistic future.

Play of the Game: Geno Lewis tosses touchdown pass to DaeSean Hamilton

Success with Honorable Mention: Christian Hackenberg nails ref in the face

Player of the Game: RB Justin Jackson, Northwestern

There was a time when a player running for 100 yards against POenn State was a bit of a rarity, but Northwestern’s Justin Jackson continued to show there is a way to run against Penn State’s defense. Jackson went off for 186 yards, a career high. It was Jackson’s first 100-yard game since October 3 against Minnesota and his fifth 100-yard performance of the season.

Potent Quotables

“You’re always frustrated after a loss. You’d like to go into a bye on a positive note and get healthy. The bye is coming late in the season but we’re going to take it. There’s no doubt you’d like to go into a bye with a win feeling really good, getting ready for those last two games. Our guys bounce back and are resilient. We’ll come in on Sunday and have our normal practice, and go from there.”

– James Franklin

What’s Next?

Penn State heads into a bye week with a record of 7-3. After getting a week off on the field, the Nittany Lions return home for the final home game of the season when Michigan comes to town in two weeks. The Wolverines will be playing their second straight game on the road after playing at Indiana this coming weekend. The Wolverines are currently a half-game in front of Penn State in the Big Ten East standings with a 4-1 conference record. The game will carry some significant importance with it as the Big Ten bowl picture starts to come into focus. Finishing in third in the Big Ten East leaves a decent chance to play in a New Years day bowl game, where finishing in fourth likely means playing before the end of the year. Penn State lost to Michigan last year, of course, and the Wolverines have been playing some good football this season under Jim Harbaugh. A kickoff time for the game has not yet been announced.

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