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This Wasn't the "Same Old Northwestern" in NU's loss to Penn State

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

In the week leading up to Saturday’s game at Penn State, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this game would give him a good idea of where his team stood. After a 39-28 loss, Fitzgerald took the optimist’s route.

“We’re 5-1, man,” he said. “We’ve got a damn good football team.”

The 5-1 part is right, and that’s better than most Big Ten teams can say at this point, but Saturday’s performance gave cause for concern about things that looked good earlier in the year. The offense couldn’t move the ball, the defense gave up a lot of short passes, the tackling was bad and the offense couldn’t control the tempo. All things considered, this may be a good team, but it’s far from a “damn good” team, much less a top 25 team.

Obviously, the first thing people will point to is that NU’s early wins weren’t as impressive as they previously seemed, and while that’s certainly true, this isn’t the “same old Northwestern team” that choked away games in the past. The difference? This team has the talent to hang with the big boys, but Saturday, Penn State took on the Wildcats’ typical role.

“When you have a time of possession (difference) of basically 40-to-20, 99 plays to 61, it’s a complete role reversal of our blueprint for success,” Fitzgerald said. “So, obviously, this one is on us as coaches. We did not do the things that champions and winners do.”

Typically, NU is the team that hangs around, controls the clock and finds a way to win against a team with equal or greater talent. This time, it was Penn State coach Bill O’Brien who executed the gameplan to perfection, and maybe that’s why this one is so tough to swallow for NU; it had the talent, but didn’t execute. As Fitzgerald said, the Cats “absolutely” let one get away.

Early on, it seemed that the supposedly revamped NU defense was as good as advertised. The Cats held the Nittany Lions to just 10 first half points, but game up 29 points in the second half, due in part to poor tackling, mental mistakes and a weakened pass rush.

“Some of our youth showed today and we’ve got to do a great job this week coaching those guys,” Fitzgerald said. “We lost contain, we missed tackles… just things that we’ve got to be better at and handle the road better next week.”

But that was expected from such a young defense, one that had already shown sings of trouble against Syracuse and Indiana. However, the offense was completely out of character, gaining only 247 yards. This was the first real test for the offense — Fitzgerald called the Nittany Lions’ defense “one of the, if not the best defense we’ve seen, by far, this year” — and it failed to find any sort of rhythm.

Kain Colter never threw a pass at quarterback and rushed for only 24 yards, while Venric Mark had 72 yards on the ground. Colter put together some nice drives, but due to the quarterback rotation, he never settled in. Trevor Siemian completed just 21-of-36 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. His longest completion went for 16 yards.

The offense looked completely different from last week’s win and it was surprising to see how little Colter was involved in the gameplan after touching the ball on nearly every play against Indiana.

“I kind of felt that way, too,” Colter said. “I feel like they thought they would try to limit me in my touches. The defense tried to double-cover me or do whatever, just because of what happened last week. I don’t know if that went into the play calling or what happened.

“I’m just going to run the route that’s called and play where I can play at.”

While NU has two solid options at quarterback, the coaches don’t seem to have mastered how to maximize their players’ talents. Often times, Siemian would replace Colter after a successful drive, and while the Fitzgerald says he has confidence in Colter as a thrower — and I believe he does — Siemian handled every pass against Penn State and was in on the final drive — an obvious passing situation.

On the other sideline, O’Brien continues to get the best out of quarterback Matt McGloin, who is considerably less talented than what NU has to work with. However, O’Brien didn’t ask him to do too much, using a lot of short passes to finish 35-for-51 for 282 yards and two touchdowns, with a long of just 19. In that regard, NU was out-coached even when it had more talent.

A loss is a loss is a loss, so the reasons behind the loss aren’t all that important, but NU didn’t lose this game because of a lack of talent. Rather, it lost by not doing the little things right and by mismanaging the game. That’s troubling for a program that prides itself in doing the opposite.

“It was a tough game,” Colter said. “I feel like we kind of handed it to them.”

Fitzgerald summed it up best.

“On the road,” he said, “it’s pretty tough when you beat yourself.”

These aren’t the “same old Wildcats” — it’s an insult to say that about a team this talented; one that can’t be compared to last year’s team in any way, shape or form.

There certainly are issues with this team that were exposed in its first big test — the passing game, the pass rush, missed tackles and breaking contain, to name a few — and the undefeated record and top 25 ranking are gone. But there’s still a lot to play for, and at 5-1, Fitzgerald certainly recognizes that.

“We’ll regroup,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of pride, a lot of things we value in that locker room and we’ve got all of our goals ahead of us. We’ll respond. I believe that.”