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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern dropped by Penn State 17-7

Not such a happy valley after all.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Sloppy wouldn’t be fitting enough to describe this one.

In a rain-soaked Beaver Stadium, Northwestern (1-4, 1-1 B1G) fell to Penn State (5-0, 2-0 B1G) in a contest that featured a combined eight turnovers. The Wildcat defense forced five takeaways, but the NU offense generated a porous 241 yards and 3.7 yards per play. Likewise, quarterback Ryan Hilinski struggled mightily, going 15-for-37 with 210 yards, an interception and two lost fumbles, including one on a botched snap exchange.

For the Nittany Lions, quarterback Sean Clifford went 10-for-20 for 140 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The Beaver Blue offense was also powered by the young running back duo of Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton, who combined for 173 yards on the ground, while Parker Washington led in receiving with four catches for 73 yards.

The Wildcats began with the football and gave it to Hull on three straight plays, but the junior collected only five yards. Backup punter Hunter Renner was promptly sent to punt.

PSU’s first drive didn’t appear optimistic until Clifford connected with Mitchell Tinsley along the sideline for a first down. Singleton proceeded to gain 21 yards on three carries, but Xander Mueller and Cam Mitchell stifled PSU’s RB to force a punt from the Nittany Lions.

Starting on their own eight, the ‘Cats had a third-and-two, but a wildcat snap to Cam Porter was quickly stuffed. Once Penn State took over, a run by Clifford set up a third-and-three. where Singleton had sufficient yardage but lost the football, allowing Northwestern to take over.

NU’s subsequent drive fizzled out, however. Hilinski missed Bryce Kirtz on third, and Akers punted for the first time. Though PSU had momentum after an eight-yard sweep to Parker Washington, Clifford’s next pass sailed and was intercepted by Bryce Gallagher.

The ‘Cats began at the Nittany Lions’ 42 and went right to trickery: Malik Washington had the option to throw the ball but kept it for no gain. Two plays later, Hilinski did his best Clifford impression, launching one right to PSU safety Ji’Ayir Brown.

Clifford opened the drive by connecting with Washington, who made Theran Johnson miss for extra yardage. Keyvone Lee followed it with a gain of 10, and then a Wallace screen added 12. Penn State eventually converted the possession into six with a Clifford throw to Brenton Strange, who hurdled his way to a 7-0 lead.

On the next drive, Hilinski went 0-for-3 passing, and yet another three-and-out piled up. The NU defense couldn’t do much to contain Lee when PSU took over, who accrued 13 yards on his first two runs of the drive. From there, Clifford hit Theo Johnson to put the Lions at the NU 38. A drop by Lee on second and a false start set up a third-and-14 for Penn State — from there, the offense couldn’t convert and punted it away.

Beginning on its own four, Porter was blown up by Chop Robinson and the Nittany Lions on consecutive plays. However, Hilinski found Donny Navarro III for his first completion: a gain of 22 and a first. A Hilinski sneak on third-and-one moved the chains for Northwestern. After an overthrow of Navarro, the Wildcat QB located Marshall Lang at midfield. The promising drive came to a crashing halt, though, when Hilinski lost the ball and PSU recovered.

James Franklin’s squad began on its own 45. After three minimal runs, the Northwestern defense couldn’t corral Lee, who picked up the first. An offside and a swing pass to Singleton got PSU into the red zone; two plays after, Singleton muscled his way into the end zone with second and third effort, making it 14-0 Penn State.

Facing an uphill battle, the Northwestern drive began with an underthrow from Hilinski, yet Hull found green for a 28-yard carry. But the ‘Cats stalled after reaching PSU territory, with Akers punting again.

Just when it seemed like Singleton had recovered after his fumbling woes, Rod Heard stung the freshman, knocking it loose. The Wildcats took over at the Penn State 28, but Hilinski was stripped by Nick Tarburton as discombobulated play continued. The half concluded with six total turnovers in the books, three for each team, yet only the Nittany Lions were able to get points out of mistakes.

Beginning the third quarter with the ball, Penn State turned to fellow freshman Kaytron Allen, who collected six yards on his first two carries. On third, Clifford zeroed in on Washington in the middle of the field for a new set of downs. Clifford’s designed run was short on the next third down, yet Allen powered to get enough yardage. A screen to Allen was detonated by Mueller for a near turnover, but Allen knifed forward for 11 on third. Eventually, as occurred all game, a fantastic play by a Wildcat DB ped a drive: Garnett Hollis Jr. made Lee cough it up.

The ‘Cats didn’t sustain a drive after the takeaway, a common mantra of the afternoon. A short pass to Navarro on third down was compounded by a false start on fourth-and-two, and Northwestern punted.

The Nittany Lions responded with their third punt of the afternoon, as a Clifford ball went through Tinsley’s hands. On the next drive, the Wildcats were able to pick up a first on a fourth-down sneak from Hilinski. An 18-yard completion to Hull in the flat put NU in opponent territory. All of a sudden, Hilinski uncorked a rope to Jacob Gill, who turned upfield for a touchdown. Northwestern trailed just 14-7 with 2:10 in the third.

When Penn State needed a huge play, Clifford and Washington provided just that, linking for a 43-yard completion. Allen followed with a 13-yard dash, but good coverage by Mitchell on third forced a PSU field goal attempt, which Jake Pinegar converted to make it 17-7 Nittany Lions.

The Wildcats gained 30 yards on the first play of their drive, with Hilinski finding Lang and a roughing the passer penalty. They then converted on third when PSU jumped offside, and on the next key down, Hilinski threw a perfect pass to Washington to set up the ‘Cats inside the 10. A screen pass to Washington was stopped by Joey Porter Jr.; on fourth and goal, Hilinski stumbled, rolled, fell just short of the plane, and the Nittany Lions took over.

Deep in its own territory, Franklin’s group got room courtesy of a 10-yard trot from Allen, but an errant throw from Clifford gave the Wildcats life. Getting the ball back, NU failed to convert on fourth down after a Washington drop and consecutive pass deflections from Hakeem Beamon.

Northwestern’s defense got off the field by forcing a punt that positioned the ‘Cats at their own seven. Hilinski paired with Navarro to pick up 20 but failed to connect with the transfer on third-and-19. Fitzgerald elected to boot it away with 7:31 remaining.

And again, NU got the ball back. Allen fumbled, which put Northwestern at midfield. On third-and-two, Hilinski was forced to the boundary. A do-or-die fourth down saw Hilinski’s pass swatted by Johnny Dixon, and on their final possession, the Nittany Lions went to Allen once again, whose fourth-down conversion effectively ended the game.

Northwestern returns to Ryan Field next Saturday to take on Wisconsin in its Homecoming game. Kick is set for 2:30 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.