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Northwestern, Jack Mitchell respond to near-collapse, beat Penn State

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Mitchell knew the game would come down to him. And he came through.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — Everything was spiraling out of control. As mid-afternoon struck a beautiful early-November Evanston day, navy- and white-clad Penn State fans were piping up. Purple-clad Northwestern ones were silent. Everything that had been going right was going wrong. After jumping out to a 20-7 halftime lead, and looking comfortable in the process, the Wildcats relinquished everything. The Ryan Field scoreboard read Penn State 21, Northwestern 20.

Northwestern was Northwesterning.

As it was, over on the sideline, kicker Jack Mitchell just sat there and watched. Mitchell had missed both of his previous field goal attempts — one from 39 yards — and an extra point. He knew he was a major part of the Northwesterning.

"I was being reminded the entire time that the game was pretty much on me," Mitchell said. "If I make my field goals and extra points, we would've been up by six."

And he wasn't just being reminded by what was transpiring on the field in front of him. His teammates were in his ear. They knew they needed their kicker.

"It's going to come down to you," they told him. "Stay focused. Respond."

What was transpiring between the white lines was just as loud as the voices though. It wasn't pretty.

It all began with a seemingly innocuous collision.

With Northwestern leading 20-7 in the third quarter of its Week 10 showdown with Penn State, and with the Wildcats stifling Penn State's offense and its future NFL first-rounder of a quarterback, the Nittany Lions faced a 4th-down-and-9 from their own 31 yard line. Northwestern's defense had dominated the entire day. Christian Hackenberg's pocket had been incessantly infiltrated by purple, and because it had been, Northwestern looked in complete control.

But then stupidity took over.

First, there was stupidity on the part of the Wildcats. Warren Long ran into Penn State punter Chris Gulla as he got off a 22-yard punt. Roughing the punter was called, giving Penn State a first down. A play later, Hackenberg slid after a short run, and took a hit from a Northwestern defender. Another 15 yards.

Then, there was stupidity on the part of the sport of football. On the very next play, after two straight penalties, Penn State coach James Franklin called a double-reverse. The second leg of the reverse was broken up by that Northwestern pressure, and the ball fell to the turf.

As it did, and while it sat there for a fleeting moment, Northwestern fans rose to their feet. But then they stayed there, mesmerized, not for the reason that they had hoped. Penn State wide receiver Geno Lewis scooped up the ball, and... looked to throw. He glided to his right, and launched a strike to fellow wideout DaeSean Hamilton towards the corner of the end zone.

From there, Northwestern's self-destruction began. Zack Oliver — in for the injured Clayton Thorson — threw an interception. The offensive line was coming apart at the seams. The defense, just as fans had been a few drives earlier, looked mesmerized by the shuffling, darting moves of Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley. His 13-yard fourth-quarter jaunt into the end zone put Penn State on top.

After comprehensively outplaying Penn State for the vast majority of three-plus quarters, everything was snowballing out of control.

"Self-inflicted wounds," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald lamented afterwards. "Penalties."

But Zack Oliver and Jack Mitchell refused to accept the script that they had, in part, written. The very players who would've shouldered the brunt of the blame for the loss — the very player whose missed field goals and extra point were the reasons NU trailed, and the very player who seemed entirely incapable of mounting a successful drive after halftime, just as he had a year ago in a season-ending loss to Illinois — came through, and forced the stupidity of college football to resurface.

Facing a third-and-15 with under two minutes remaining, and facing a one-point deficit, Oliver took the snap.

"They were in cover-zero," Oliver remembered postgame. "The safeties were down, and it was pretty much just one-on-one [on the outside]."

And with the game on the line, Northwestern won that one-on-one battle, a type of victory that had eluded the Wildcats since the first half.

"[Austin Carr] made a great move," Oliver said. "He was wide open, and I just gave him a chance to get the ball." Carr peered back over his outside shoulder and made a phenomenal catch, giving Northwestern a first down to the Penn State 36.

Minutes later, Mitchell rose off the bench.

"Once we crossed the 33 [yard line], Jack felt confident," Fitzgerald said.

Mitchell escaped the confinement that had been so excruciating for him since his second miss. And he did just what his teammates had been telling him he would need to do. He came through, splitting the uprights with unwavering precision.

As he strode onto the field, Fitzgerald only had one thought infiltrate his mind. "He's going to make the kick."

As the ball tumbled down the Ryan Field field goal net, Mitchell didn't celebrate exuberantly. But he was mobbed by teammates, the same ones who he knew he had let down earlier in the game. As they had told him to do, Mitchell had stayed focused. He had responded.

It's impossible to ignore what Mitchell's kick will try to obscure. Northwestern has significant flaws, and during the second half collapse, they were more evident than ever. The offense, with or without Thorson, is one of the worst in Power Five college football.

But Northwestern is 7-2. It has won games that it shouldn't have. And because it has, Pat Fitzgerald pulled his leadership council together earlier in the week after the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season. Northwestern had come in at No. 21. "We're in the mix for a New Year's Six bowl," Fitzgerald told them.

"I'm not going to shy away from that," he said postgame. And until those flaws come back to doom the Wildcats, as they did against Iowa and Michigan, that statement can't be refuted just yet.