Five turnovers caused, and only seven points scored.
That’s the story of yesterday’s game, in which Northwestern fell 17-7 to Penn State in a sloppy, wet standoff emblematic of Big Ten play at its finest.
What once appeared to be the Wildcats’ strength at the start of the season, the offense has slowly spiraled into the team’s biggest problem. In Dublin, NU racked up 528 yards of total offense and one fumble. Yesterday was a completely different story, with the ‘Cats notching a measly 241 yards, three fumbles — two of them lost — and an interception. Northwestern’s defense, on the other hand, has shown improvement from its early tidings.
So let’s review.
Turnover number one happened with just under six minutes remaining in the first when junior linebacker Xander Mueller jumped on a fumble by Penn State freshman running back Nicholas Singleton. The score still even at zero, Northwestern took possession on its own 40-yard line.
Then the offense went three-and-out. Evan Hull only moved the ball up five yards on two attempts before an incompletion by Ryan Hilinski forced the punt team onto the field.
Turnover number two happened on the very next drive, though, thanks to linebacker Bryce Gallagher’s well-trained eyes. The senior pulled in an interception off Sean Clifford at Penn State’s 42, handing his offense even better field position than its last possession.
Yet again, Mike Bajakian’s side could not reward the defense for its efforts. An incomplete pass to Malik Washington and a loss of one on another failed Hull run segued into a Hilinski interception straight to Ji’Ayir Brown in the Nittany Lion secondary.
The score was still 0-0 until Penn State scored on its very first drive off a turnover to make the score 7-0. In under two minutes before the end of the first, the Nittany Lions did what Northwestern could not and quickly turned their opportunity into points.
PSU punched in another score in the middle of the second, but more mistakes followed that the Wildcats couldn't capitalize on. It was Rod Heard II who caused the next mistake by Singleton, forcing a fumble recovered by Cam Mitchell with just under two minutes remaining in the half.
This time deeper in Penn State’s half at the 28, the Wildcats only got off one play — a loss of two on a Cam Porter rush — before giving it right up once again. On the second play of the drive, Nick Tarburton engulfed Hilinski behind the line of scrimmage, and the QB promptly lost the ball himself just before the halftime whistle.
You want first-half stats? Northwestern’s defense won three turnovers, and the offense only managed to run seven total plays on the ensuing drives, gaining a whopping two whole yards in the process. That’s just not sustainable football, and it’s definitely not the same offense that took the field Week Zero in Dublin.
Another fumble forced by Garnett Hollis Jr. recovered by Greyson Metz on Penn State’s first drive of the second half gave Northwestern the ball on its own 33. Can you guess what happened next?
Well, it wasn’t a turnover, but a false start penalty that dug the ‘Cats into a hole shortly after. Facing fourth-and-two, the offense set up to go for it...but the refs thought they saw Peter Skoronski move (questionable call) and at that point, it made most sense to punt.
A burst of energy two drives later saw receiver Jacob Gill streaking into the end zone for Northwestern’s first score of the game. But then came the fourth quarter.
Penn State hit one through the uprights to put the home side up 17-7. Then, when the Wildcats needed their offense the most, it shut down. Two turnovers on downs — including a failed QB sneak from the Penn State two on fourth-and-goal — didn’t discourage Gallagher from forcing another fumble to be picked up by Jeremiah Lewis on the 50-yard line.
And it was answered with another three-and-out. That’s five turnovers handed to Hilinski and the offense on a silver platter, and not one first down earned on any of the following drives.
It’s becoming more and more evident that Northwestern’s offense is its Achilles' heel. Hilinski’s decision-making has been sub-par since Nebraska, Hull didn’t nearly get as many touches yesterday as he should have (only 11 attempts!) and no receiver is causing enough havoc in opponents’ secondaries to be considered a real weapon in the Big Ten. The defense, on the other hand, is what kept the ‘Cats in it yesterday, despite the glaring holes left by Coco Azema's and A.J. Hampton’s absences in the secondary.
This team can now go two ways. The offense will rise to the occasion, return to its Week Zero glory and give the defense some points to protect in the coming weeks. Or, it will remain stagnant, unable to capitalize on turnovers and continuously reliant on its defense to keep it hanging by a thread.