but it was Northwestern who couldn't hang on to a lead. A very un-JoePa like day from the Nittany Lions that included fumbles galore, stupid penalties and relatively sloppy play all around was salvaged by an all-too familiar performance by the Wildcat secondary, who gave 10-yard cushions and got burned deep all day for big plays and a winning score in the final minute of a 34-29 PSU win in Evanston.
After a blowout in the opener, things appear to be back to normal in Dyche Stadium this year with cardiac finishes. NIU missed their 2-point attempt late, but PSU was able to score on their last-minute drive and the Cats let one slip away. Like a lot of the close finishes lately, Saturday's game should have never been that close. But the NU offense settled for field goals and not touchdowns early and what could have been a 35-point first half was merely a 23-14 advantage for NU going into the half, despite a host of PSU turnovers that NU only turned into 13 points.
For a while, it looked like Joe Paterno may lose to Northwestern for the third year in a row, as the Cats came out with an impressive opening drive – mixing up plays, converting third downs and marching down the field 80 yards for a 7-0 lead, chewing up the first six minutes of the game in the process. Unfortunately for NU fans, this was as good as it would get and the last time all day that Basanez spread the ball around (the rest of the game he was locked in on Shawn Herbert) and the offense was clicking completely.
Two PSU turnovers (and it could have been three had the refs not generously spotted a Michael Robinson fumble on fourth down) resulted in two short NU field goals and it was 13-0 early in the second quarter before Penn State converted a couple of deep passes to cut the lead to 13-7.
The Wildcats fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, but PSU gave it right back on one of the many tipped interceptions on the day (nice to see some pressure from the D-line!). NU responded by driving a little more than 70 yards for what would be their last touchdown of the day, a Sutton dive up the middle for a 20-7 lead, though the drive was aided greatly by a deep pass (imagine that! STRETCH THE D!) when Baz scrambled on a 3rd down and found Jonathan Fields for a terrific catch.
The Nits tried to give NU the game yet again by throwing another interception on their next play, but the Cats could only kick a short field goal to go up 23-7. The Lions drove but fumbled inside the NU red zone, but the Cats couldn't convert on the turnover again and we saw the only punt of the first half. PSU was able to add another long pass TD before half to put the score at 23-14. All NU fans could think is that the lead should have been much more … all PSU fans could think is how in the heck they were still within single digits after such an awful first half with four turnovers and only half the time of possession that Northwestern had in the half.
Penn State took the ball first in the second half, but fumbled away (and recovered) a chance to move the ball and after a half of scores and turnovers, things slowed a bit in the third and PSU had its first punt of the day. Marquis Cole made one of the bigger blunders in Dyche Stadium since Anthony Thomas' fatal fumble in the 54-51 game by fair catching the punt inside the NU 3 yard line (what the ?!?!?!). PSU was able to turn the field position into a field goal on their next series to cut the lead to 23-17.
You could start to feel the momentum slipping, and I think Randy Walker did too, because after another series of punts, NU called a fake on 4th and 5 from their own 35 with 5:10 left in the third. The fake worked and kept the drive alive to swing ole mo' back to the purple side for a moment, but the offense fizzled and Joel Howells missed his only field goal of the day, a 48-yarder that sailed wide right. And the Cats had let another chance slip away … along with burning a timeout that would be a pattern for the second half.
Penn State opened the fourth by looking like NU and settling for a field goal after a good-looking drive to cut the lead to 23-20. NU again showed some guts by converting a 4th and 1 near midfield on the next drive, but they also burned their final timeouts and only came away with a 48-yard Howells field goal to make the margin the loathsome six-point deficit that gives coaches and fans ulcers in a back-and-forth game.
With 10:15 remaining, Penn State appeared to fumble the kickoff and Northwestern recovered. But after replay and some confusion by the officials with a quick whistle, there just wasn't enough to overturn the call on the field and PSU was able to breathe a sigh of relief that a bounce or break finally went their way on the day. Every game, PSU is good for at least one reverse play it seems, and they burned the Cats with a 43-yard reverse on this drive and marched downfield to take a 27-26 lead, their first of the day despite a plethora of miscues and roughly half of NU's time of possession.
After a day with relatively few flags (the officials seemed to let the kids play and as long as they do that both ways – as they did – then fans love to see it), a holding flag on the next kickoff put the Cats at their own 5 yard line and down for the first time in a game they had dominated. After what could have been a PSU safety for holding in the end zone on NU, the Lions bailed the Cats out with a late hit on Baz during a 3rd down scramble. Yeah, it was a close call and could have been a no-call, but it was still a stupid play by PSU that maybe deserved the flag for sheer stupidity. Baz was 5 yards from the marker and heading out of bounds – all PSU needed to do was push him out, but lowering the head for any kind of hit begs for a flag.
The Cats started to take advantage of the flag and drove downfield … but settled for a field goal again to go up 29-27. But with two minutes left and the NU secondary in shambles, few thought this one was over.
Northwestern's defense did get it to 4th and 15 (including another PSU fumble that the Lions recovered and a great screen read and tackle by Tim McGarigle) and the crowd tried to cheer in vain … only to watch PSU pass it right up the middle to the tight end for 17 yards (he had three purple jerseys around him, but not one was next to him). The final dagger was yet another deep bomb Robinson launched a nanosecond before taking another hit (again, we got good pressure), only to have the receiver be wide open and then break a poor shoulder tackle to make it to the end zone.
Northwestern had 51 seconds left, but no timeouts and when Philmore slipped and Baz threw an interception near midfield, the game was over. The Cats scored 7 times, Penn State scored 6 … but Northwestern settled for 3 far too many times while the Lions got touchdowns. We had every chance to win, gift wrapped in Nittany Blue, but could not capitalize.
It's a frustrating loss heading into the bye week for Northwestern. The Cats did bounce back from the ASU disaster in the desert well to start the game, but just couldn't close the deal and the result is a 2-2 record with a brutal road ahead, starting with what should be a 5-0 Wisconsin team visiting Evanston in two weeks and including road trips to top 20 teams MSU and Purdue before the games against the Big Three in OSU, Iowa and what is sure to be an embarrassed and angry Michigan team the rest of the season. It's going to take a miraculous turnaround in the secondary and a killer instinct in the offense to get bowl hopes going again in Evanston.
As for Penn State, they gotta feel like they stole one here in Evanston and have equaled last year's win total with the 4-0 start. I'm not sure they are for real, though, as we moved the ball on their D and their O was turnover prone, to put it kindly. I guess we'll see with visits from Minnesota and Ohio State to Happy Valley in the next two weeks.
Close doesn't count anymore in Evanston and although it was another cardiac finish in Ryan Field, this one did not send the purple people home happy and left a sting that could last the rest of the season. We need this bye week to regroup.
SjT GAME BALLS
* Tim McGarigle – The defensive lapses on the day – and there were many of them – sure weren't the fault of #41. McGarigle was everywhere on the day and tipped a few of the intercepted passes, nearly picking off another himself.
* Joel Howells – He missed one of six attempts, but even that was close – the rest were from varied distances and tricky angles. He did his part, even converting a long onsides kick trying to kick away from the PSU returner and getting a fortunate bounce. Howells reminds me of my old Saints favorite Morten Andersen – he has no problem with distance, just accuracy … and when he does hit a long one, the ensuing kickoff is a guaranteed touchback because he's so hyped.
* Tyrell Sutton – The kid continues to impress with some scrappy running, including one play where he seemed to squirt under three PSU defenders for an extra 5-8 yards after spinning to deflect the initial hit. He's a lot of fun to watch.
THINGS TO WORK ON
* Coverage! For the love of all that is purple, coverage! The front seven did their job on Saturday, getting a lot of pressure, tipped balls and doing a somewhat decent job of stopping the run save a few big plays. But the secondary continued to give 10-yard cushions, get caught not knowing where the ball is when it's in midair and a receiver is 5 yards behind ‘em and generally playing as inept as I've seen an NU secondary play (and that's saying something). This was Penn State, after all, not Purdue … and they carved up our secondary on some big plays. It's scary to think what MSU and some other teams will do coming up if we don't improve in a hurry. And I'm at a loss as to what to do – we play close and we get burned long, we play back and we get burned short.
* Going for the jugular – As maligned as the defense is – and deservedly so in the secondary – this loss is a total team loss. The offense basically spent the first half inside PSU territory after several Nittany turnovers. Of all the turnovers, we only got one TD off of them and often played it too safe in settling for three. By the early second quarter, PSU had 10 defenders within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage and didn't even have to respect a deep pass. When you recover a fumble at the 20 yard line and have momentum, one play should at least be a shot at the end zone! Three field goals were from a distance of 25 yards or less – that shows how we settled for three instead of going for the win.
* Smarter clock management – We burned our timeouts on horrible decisions early in the second half and had nothing left in the critical final minutes. Having 1 or 2 of those left with :51 left could have made that final drive a bit more makeable.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
* OHIO STATE reasserted itself as the league favorite today with a solid thrashing of a Drew Tate-led IOWA team. There are a few tough road tests left at Minny and Michigan, but the biggest date on the calendar may be the home one in three weeks against …
* MICHIGAN STATE, who routed the ILLINI today and looked like a team ready to contend for a BCS berth – instead of the usual Sparty team that pulls an upset and then takes a week or two off. Looks like we had the wrong Drew in the preseason hype, as Stanton has the Smith Spread attack down cold and is on fire. Sparty has a huge home date with in-state non-rival Michigan next week (it's only a rivalry if both sides feel that way and those in Ann Arbor just don't) and a bye week after that to prepare for OSU.
* MINNESOTA and WISCONSIN complete the unlikely quintet at the top (well, aside from OSU) of the league standings right now. Minny's OT thrillah against PURDUE was the Boilers' biggest road block to a title and now sets up the Gophers and that powerful running game as a league darkhorse (though the road ahead is tough). Purdoo must rebound for those pesky Irish. And speaking of powerful running games, the Badger win knocks MICHIGAN to 2 losses in September (wow!) and sets the stage for what could be an emotional run to send Barry out on top. With no OSU on the sked and Iowa and Purdue visiting Camp Randall, the Badgers are also looking like a strong darkhorse.
Gotta love conference play. The Big Ten blew its chance at national championship glory in week 2, barring a huge collapse by the top teams … but no league is as deep in talent and certainly no league produced as entertaining of an opening weekend, with an intriguing title scramble that should be fun to watch.
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Items Copyright 2004 by
Stephen J. Truog and PurpleWildcats/Purple Reign