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Northwestern-Penn State Final Score: Jack Mitchell hits game-winning field goal, Wildcats beat Nittany Lions 23-21

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Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't pretty by any means, but after a late second-half collapse, Northwestern squeaked by Penn State as Jack Mitchell drilled a 35 yard field goal with less than 15 seconds on the clock to beat the Nittany Lions, 23-21.

Fresh off a bye week, Northwestern won the coin toss and elected to defer, challenging their defense against Christian Hackenberg and the highly touted Penn State offense. After allowing a combined 106 points in its last three games, this matchup provided an opportunity for the Northwestern defense to prove that it belongs among the nation's elite.

The defense would come up big on the first possession, forcing a three and out and setting the tone for a 23-21 Northwestern victory.

Things did not always look favorable for Northwestern (7-2 overall, 3-2 Big Ten).

After Solomon Vault's 96-yard kickoff return with two minutes to play in the second quarter gave Northwestern a 20-7 lead, the Wildcats surrendered 14 unanswered points in the second half. Saquon Barkley rushed for two touchdowns on the day, the latter from 13 yards out, putting Penn State up 21-20 early in the fourth quarter.

Northwestern would not score again until there were 13 seconds remaining. After missing field goals from 39, 47, and a PAT, Jack Mitchell's game winner gave the Wildcats the 23-21 lead.

Northwestern's defense forced a fumble on Penn State's last play of the game, a fitting end for the unit that won Northwestern the game.

The Wildcats' win over Penn State will keep their hopes of a New Year's Six bowl game alive.

Three Big Takeaways

1. Zack Oliver replaces Clayton Thorson

In his first meaningful action since he started Northwestern's 47-33 loss to Illinois last season, Oliver played true to the quarterback we've come to know. He started the game well, taking care of the football and making smart, safe throws. Oliver's touchdown strike to Christian Jones was placed perfectly between the Penn State linebackers and safeties, and nobody expected him to keep the ball at the one-yard line where he walked into the end zone almost untouched.

But then Oliver reverted to the quarterback who committed five turnovers against Illinois last season. He tried to force an unnecessary throw up the middle on second down that was intercepted — there were two defenders in the area. He would not be able to get anything going the rest of the game, finishing 11 for 24 for 111 yards.

But with the game on the line, in the two-minute drill with Northwestern down 21-20, Oliver made one crucial throw. With pass rushers in his face on a 3rd and 15, he hit Austin Carr for 23 yards on a post-corner route that brought Northwestern into field goal range. The throw to Carr set up Mitchell's game-winning field goal with nine seconds remaining.

2. The defense is back

Despite allowing 21 points, Northwestern's defense kept them in the game. They shut down Hackenberg in the first quarter, allowing 3 completions on 12 attempts for 19 yards. With a bevy of scouts in attendance, the future NFL quarterback would settle into the game in the second quarter, but would finish just 20 of 39 with 198 yards and an interception.  Take away somewhat of a fluke play, the Geno Lewis wide receiver touchdown pass, and Northwestern holds Penn State to just 14 points. Penn State's offense could barely get anything going besides Saquon Barkley. The freshman running back rushed for 125 yards but was held to less than 5 yards per carry.

With Penn State seizing all the momentum in the game and marching downfield, Nick VanHoose picked off Christian Hackenberg in Northwestern territory, preserving the one point deficit and keeping the Wildcats alive.

3. Justin Jackson gashes Penn State

After rushing for just 25, 30, and 40 yards in Northwestern's last three games, Jackson ran all over Penn State's defense, torching them for a career high 186 yards on 28 carries. The Northwestern offense kept away from the stout Penn State defensive line, running the sweep to the outside with consistent success. While the offensive line deserves credit for helping spring Jackson, he was cutting and running downhill like the running back that rushed for nearly 1200 yards as a freshman last season. He had four runs for over 15 yards, and three for over 25 yards, a far cry from the previous three weeks.