by Callie Counsellor (@CCounsellor)
This category is difficult to grade because Northwestern has two polar-opposite players who both get snaps at the position. While Kain Colter, with limited snaps, earned a very decent grade, Trevor Siemian lowered the curve like that kid in your stats class who never opened his book. Siemian’s throws were off-target to an almost Tebow-ish level. I have been a huge proponent of Siemian and the two-quarterback system, but today, Siemian was the problem. Amazingly, through no effort of his own, he threw zero interceptions but missed 10+ passes, including a critical overthrow of Rashad Lawrence on third down with the Wildcats leading by three in the fourth quarter. He threw for only 135 yards and a 3.6 yards/pass average, not good enough, as coach Pat Fitzgerald said, to win against a Big Ten team, especially one on the rise like Penn State. Colter could have been the solution but did not get a chance to prove it. NU had 13 offensive plays in the fourth quarter and Colter was involved in exactly two of them—not ideal for the biggest threat on the team.
Running Backs: C
Apparently, the running backs left their running shoes in Evanston. After gaining 394 yards against Indiana’s (admittedly weaker) defense last week, NU gained only 112 yards against PSU. Venric Mark was held to his lowest rushing total of the season with 72 yards. The backs didn’t get a lot of help from their offensive line but also hurt themselves with a slow first step. The unit didn’t seem as explosive as in recent weeks, which really hurt them in establishing any rhythm for a prolonged period of time.
Wide Receivers: C-
Because of Siemian’s struggles, the wide receivers did not have much of a chance to make big plays. But when they did have a chance, they often didn’t take advantage of it. They finished with 21 catches for 135 yards, but the leading receiver, Mike Trumpy, had only 28 yards. No one made the big play that this unit was touted for at the beginning of the season.
Offensive Line: C
Colter and Mark, despite popular belief, cannot run through brick walls, which is what Northwestern’s offensive line provided them throughout most the game. To their credit, the offensive line provided decent protection; it wasn’t their fault that Siemian failed to do anything with it.
Defensive Line: C
The defensive line faced a unique challenge in that they would be expected to stop many more fourth down attempts that usual, considering PSU’s hesitance to send their woeful kicking unit onto the field. Unfortunately, the unit did not rise to the occasion, allowing the Nittany Lions to go 5-6 on fourth downs, two of them leading to scores in the first half. The unit seemed to wear down as the game went on. While fatigue was a legitimate factor in this game—PSU had the ball for nearly 20 minutes longer than NU—part of that lies with the defense who failed to stop the Nittany Lions on fourth down and get off the field.
While some of their troubles stemmed from faulty defensive play-calling from the sideline (overuse of the blitz when it wasn’t working), the linebackers brought some of their misery onto themselves. PSU’s frequent use of the screen pass set the linebackers up for a good number of mid-range tackles. However, the linebackers missed tackles left and right, turning a 2- or 3-yard gain into a 6- or 7-yard gain. They had several near-interceptions but were always just a fingertip out of place, allowing passes to drop in just behind them.
The oft-criticized unit of the NU defense, the secondary actually carried the defense in the first half, allowing only 132 yards, a 4.7 yards/pass average. However, they were incredibly hot and cold the rest of the way, reverting back to their old ways at points in the second half. They left players wide-open 20 yards down field and failed to turn towards the ball, leading to obvious pass interference calls. Cornerback Nick Van Hoose knocked down a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone on third down in the fourth quarter but three plays later allowed a 13-yard pass on fourth and two to give the Nittany Lions a first down at Northwestern’s six yard line. Ultimately, the missed plays outnumbered the good ones.
Special Teams: A-
The specials teams unit made the two biggest plays of the day, starting with recovering a muffed punt reception by the Nittany Lions and giving the Cats a first down at the PSU 16-yard line. NU converted the turnover into a touchdown and gained the ever-coveted “momentum” for the time being. Then, with three minutes left in the third quarter, Mark continued his stellar season with an electric punt return to give the Cats their first double-digit lead of the day. The special teams unit also did not give up any memorable PSU returns, meaning they did their job for the day. Kicker Jeff Budzien continued his steadfast play, going 4-4 on extra points to keep a perfect 74-74 career record.
This game could have been well in hand if not for some questionable coaching decisions. They continued to blitz despite PSU’s overwhelming success with the screen pass and, most egregiously, stuck with Siemian despite his immense struggles. Like I said, I am a fan of the two-QB system—when it’s working—but Siemian couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. Colter, even with his less-impressive arm, was four times the threat that Siemian was today. Yet, inexplicably, Colter had no passing attempts and was barely utilized in the fourth quarter with the Cats up by only three and then down by four. The biggest problem today was not the poor quarterback play, or the lacking running game, or the on-and-off defense; it was the game plan and the inability to adjust in-game, and that blame lies with the coaches.