An unwatchable offensive performance riddled with unforced mistakes, combined with the second half ejection of linebacker Paddy Fisher, led to an unceremonious blowout loss by the score of 31-7 for Northwestern at the hands of No. 4 Penn State at Ryan Field on Saturday.
Quarterback Trace McSorley completed 74 percent of his passes for the Nittany Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten), and Heisman contender Saquon Barkley took advantage of Fisher’s absence by turning a lousy day into a decent one with a late 53-yard touchdown run. The Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) managed just 265 yards of offense on the day, including just 99 in the second half (80 of which came on NU’s final drive).
Clayton Thorson was sacked four times and pressured on nearly every dropback, resulting in a fumble and two interceptions. Justin Jackson had a strong first half but was abandoned when the game got out of hand, finishing with 66 yards, 16 short of the program’s all-time record. And Godwin Igwebuike became the second Northwestern defender to be tossed in the second half, meaning he and Fisher (arguably the two best players on the defense) will miss the first half against Maryland next week.
Just like last week in Madison, Northwestern’s defense got off to a strong start but was let down by an incompetent offensive line. After stuffing Penn State on fourth down on the game’s opening possession, the Wildcats moved the ball all the way down to the 10 yard-line. The next four plays? Holding, a 10-yard sack in which left tackle Blake Hance didn’t block anyone, a run for no gain, and finally, a Thorson interception under pressure.
Then the Cats’ defense got another stop! Linebackers Fisher and Nate Hall, who had phenomenal days, were making plays all over the field in the first half. Barkley ran for just 1 yard on 5 carries in the opening period. And then...the offense gave it right back by allowing an easy sack and forced fumble on third down.
Both tackles, Rashawn Slater and Blake Hance, offered literally zero resistance on that forced fumble.— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) October 7, 2017
Penn State and McSorley finally got to work after that, scoring 10 points on its next two drives. The Nittany Lions got to work with a short field on their first touchdown drive because NU punter Hunter Niswander shanked a 13-yard punt, the exact type of thing that can’t happen against a top-5 team.
Jackson got going on the ensuing drive, ripping off chunks of yardage and looking the healthiest we’ve seen him since the opener. Northwestern got down to the PSU 33, and facing a 4th and 2, offensive coordinator Mick McCall decided to run the speed option. Thorson, despite seeing this look, didn’t audible out of it.
Northwestern ran option right here pic.twitter.com/OrsCHFQEyC— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) October 7, 2017
You’ll never guess what happened next.
Northwestern’s defense, led once again by Fisher and Hall, forced another punt. Facing 3rd and 10 from his own 8, Thorson made some magic, rolling out and floating one to Skowronek for a gain of 32. The Wildcats got into Penn State territory for the fourth time in five drives, only to have Thorson get sacked yet again. With time running out in the half, Thorson heaved a ball towards Macan Wilson in the end zone, but it wobbled and was picked off to end the half.
As a recap: Northwestern held Saquon Barkley to -1 rushing yards and took four of five drives into Penn State territory, and yet trailed 10-0 at the break. Four penalties, three sacks, three turnovers and a terrible punt will do that to you.
The Wildcats went three and out on the opening possession of the second half, Penn State marched down the field and scored on a Barkley 1-yard leap, and never looked back after taking a 17-0 lead.
Northwestern’s offense looked like a high school JV team during the game’s final 30 minutes. Yes, Penn State has an elite defense, but if you watched the entire game (and I really hope you did something better with your Saturday), you know just how awful the offense was down the stretch. The Wildcats went three-and-out on five of six second half drives.
Meanwhile, with Fisher gone — and true freshman Blake Gallagher at middle linebacker due to Nathan Fox being hurt — Barkley did this.
Igwebuike was tripped up by the ref on that play and visibly upset, which might have contributed to his rash decision to make the late hit that led to his ejection.
McSorley added a rushing touchdown before backup QB Matt Alviti led a garbage time TD drive to make it 31-7.
- Northwestern’s defense, despite the score, played its heart out on Saturday. I’ve already mentioned Fisher and Hall’s excellence, but the Wildcats also racked up 5 sacks. Sam Miller and Joe Gaziano were good in pass-rush, and Igwebuike recorded 11 tackles before he was tossed. The unit gave Northwestern every opportunity to stay in the game early on, and given how the offense played, holding Penn State to 31 points is actually pretty impressive. Barkley’s first 11 carries went for -1 yard.
- The offense made me want to gouge my eyes out. Northwestern just doesn’t have any Big Ten-caliber offensive tackles on its roster right now, and no quarterback in the country could be productive under the amount of duress Thorson is facing every week. His receivers struggled to create separation against a really good secondary.
- The third quarter continues to be really bad for Northwestern.
- 8 penalties is way too many.
- Jackson is much healthier and will become Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher next week against Maryland. He finally looked like his old self during the first half on Saturday, making vintage cuts and displaying some burst on the outside.
- Matt Alviti has impressed in garbage time three times this season. He led a 9-play, 80 yard drive in the fourth quarter, and is legitimately fast. It probably doesn’t mean much, but will he get any earlier looks going forward?
- The Wildcats need to go 4-3 down the stretch just to get back to 6-6. That’s nowhere near guaranteed at this point, although it will absolutely be nice to play a team that isn’t in the top 10.