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Northwestern-Penn State recap: Player grades from Northwestern's 23-21 victory

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Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.

After NU turned in an up-and-down performance its 23-21 victory over Penn State, the grades, as you might expect, are up-and-down:

After battling through injuries, bad luck, and their own mistakes, Northwestern sealed their second consecutive close victory with a 35-yard Jack Mitchell field goal with nine seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

Here are the player grades from Northwestern’s dramatic 23-21 win.

Clayton Thorson

Grade: N/A

Stats: 5/8 58 yards; 4 carries, 25 yards

Clearly, Clayton Thorson cannot be given a proper grade, but since every player grade article this season has begun with Thorson and his injury was an important storyline of the game, I see no reason to break with tradition. Thorson left the field after taking a hit to the face and did not return. He also took a huge hit to the head and fumbled after a nine yard run in the previous drive, which may have contributed to the decision to bring in backup QB Zack Oliver. Thorson was listed as questionable with a lower body injury during the game, but Coach Fitzgerald refused to give any updates on his condition in the postgame press conference.

While he played, Thorson moved the ball reasonably well and made two plays with his legs against a Penn State defense that has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season. However, his injury prevented Northwestern from exploiting that Penn State defensive weakness, as Oliver, his less mobile replacement, had six carries for negative 20 yards. The quarterback situation will be closely monitored as Northwestern prepares to take on Purdue at home next weekend.

Zack Oliver

Grade: C+

Stats: 11/24, 111 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 6 carries, -20 yards, 1 TD

In some respects, Zack Oliver performed admirably in relief of Clayton Thorson on Saturday. His touchdown pass to Christian Jones was excellent. The fake handoff play he ran at the goalline was perfect. His throw to Austin Carr to set up the game-winning field goal was the most important offensive play of the game. On those three plays, Zack Oliver was perfect. The rest of the time, his decision-making and accuracy were subpar. He ended up with a 43.3 out of 100 on ESPN’s Total QBR scale, which is not fantastic, but it got the job done.

Oliver was helped tremendously by Justin Jackson and the running game. But when the running game wasn’t working, a sudden fear gripped Northwestern fans as Oliver’s passes sailed through the outstretched arms of Penn State defenders. The offense went completely dormant after halftime and he threw an unnecessary interception into traffic in the third quarter. Oliver also took a bad sack when Northwestern got within field goal range after the VanHoose interception. Under pressure again on the final drive, he threw a pass that landed directly in Penn State’s Grant Haley's hands. It should have ended the game, and Haley knew it too.

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Haley then proceeded to get burned by Austin Carr for a huge gain on the next play. Not a good minute for him. To be fair, Oliver was not expecting to play today, and he may improve if Thorson is out for an extended period and Oliver gets more practice time. Overall, Oliver came through when necessary, but was otherwise unimpressive.

Justin Jackson

Grade: A+

Stats: 28 carries, 186 yards; 1 reception, 9 yards

Jackson had a career-high 186 rushing yards, a career-best 6.6 yards per carry, and three huge runs of 20+ yards that set up two touchdowns and a missed field goal. Quite simply, Northwestern does not win the game without the sophomore back’s performance on Saturday. After three subpar games, Jackson bounced back by nearly doubling his rushing yards from those three games combined. Jackson also picked up several key first downs and was still effective at the end of the game despite getting an exhausting 28 carries. Although he did not find the end zone, this was one of Jackson’s finest career performances.

Solomon Vault

Grade: A

Stats: 2 carries, 7 yards; 119 return yards, 1 return touchdown

Vault’s kickoff return touchdown was a pivotal moment in the first half, and it turned out to be a critical play as Northwestern’s offense faltered in the second half. Vault used his speed to benefit from awful Penn State kickoff coverage, and entered the record books as Northwestern’s all-time leader in kickoff return touchdowns (three) and return touchdowns in a single season (two). Vault was not used much in the offense, but he made up for it in his special teams role.

Wide Receivers

Grade: C+

The receivers get the same grade as Oliver, as both struggled at times during the game, but came through when the game was on the line. Christian Jones and Dan Vitale were able to find some separation in the Penn State secondary, but Northwestern was ultimately held to just 169 passing yards. However, Carr managed to haul in one critical 23-yard reception that saved the game for Northwestern. The receivers did not have untimely drops like they did against Nebraska, and that salvaged an otherwise mundane Northwestern passing attack.

Offensive Line

Grade: C

At times, the offensive line was completely unable to stop Penn State’s dangerous pass rush. Star DE Carl Nassib and his teammates pummeled Northwestern, accruing 5 sacks and 3 quarterback hits. Nassib set the Penn State single-season sack record on Saturday, and was a massively disruptive presence. Penn State’s pressure led to Thorson’s exit in the first quarter, and they substantially limited Oliver and company in the second half. Injuries to center Ian Park and left guard Geoff Mogus forced Fitzgerald to constantly re-shift his alignment, and the makeshift offensive line struggled to hold off Penn State’s devastating pass rush. However, the line was able to spring Jackson and Warren Long for several long runs down the field, and they did a very good job run-blocking throughout the game.

Anthony Walker

Grade: B+

Stats: 7 solo tackles, 10 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack

Walker quietly had a huge game on the stat sheet Saturday and was able to get into Penn State’s backfield on a consistent basis. He helped contain Saquon Barkley intermittently throughout the game, especially on outside runs, and was also a major part of the pass rush. However, Barkley’s talent eventually came through later in the game, and he picked up large chunks of yardage, including a 13-yard touchdown, on direct snaps from the Wildcat formation. Barkley was able to run up the middle at Walker and the other linebackers, up until Penn State got stuffed on that Wildcat formation on third down with two minutes remaining in the game, enabling Northwestern’s final drive down the field.

Defensive Line

Grade: B

Northwestern's defensive front had a good game against a porous Penn State offensive line. Dean Lowry got some pressure on Hackenberg, including a first-quarter sack that was controversially taken away for unnecessary roughness. Xavier Washington and Deonte Gibson both played well, and they forced Hackenberg out of the pocked on multiple occasions. Washington had a standout performance, knocking away one Hackenberg pass and getting two quarterback hits. Hackenberg was able to scramble away on many occasions, but Gibson and Anthony Walker were able to bring him down for two sacks. Hackenberg’s poor stat line (21/40, 205 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) shows that Northwestern’s pass rush was a major factor in Penn State’s sluggish offensive output. However, they could have done a much better job containing Saquon Barkley, who managed 120 yards on 25 carries.

Nick VanHoose

Grade: B

Stats: 1 pass breakup, 1 interception, 4 return yards

Even though Northwestern failed to score off of his interception, VanHoose’s play late in the fourth quarter was another link in Northwestern’s chain of game-saving plays after Penn State took the lead. Penn State was driving down the field and would have at least had a chance at a field goal to put them one score ahead, and VanHoose’s interception flipped the field position so Oliver had a short field after Penn State’s final possession. That interception was Hackenberg’s first pick since Week 3, and it could not have come at a better time for Northwestern. At least VanHoose made up for getting beaten on Penn State’s fumble-turned touchdown play that changed the momentum of the game in the third quarter. On a day when the offense was struggling, VanHoose and the defense stepped up to give Northwestern a chance to win.

Return Teams

Grade: B+

The blocking on Vault’s touchdown return was great, and Northwestern’s special teams has been able to break off some big returns this season. However, Warren Long drew a terrible roughing the punter penalty on a Penn State punt that eventually turned into a crazy touchdown for Penn State. With Penn State struggling to get anything going on offense, Long's gift gave them new life and brought the visiting Penn State fans back into the game. Miles Shuler also fumbled his first punt return in the first quarter, but the Wildcats fell on it. They deserve a high grade for the return touchdown, but smaller mental mistakes nearly cost Northwestern in the end.

Jack Mitchell

Grade: B

Stats: 1/3 FG, missed from 47 and 37; 2/3 XP,

The main theme of this game for Northwestern is: "looked shaky at times, but made the plays when it counted." This theme is embodied by kicker Jack Mitchell, who missed two field goals and an extra point, only to nail a 35-yard field goal to win the game. It’s completely valid to argue that Mitchell should get an F for this game, and he was certainly headed that way until the last minute comeback. But he made the game-winner, and (almost) all is forgiven. Northwestern and arbitrary football narratives won the day thanks to his leg.