Penn State's electrifying 39-28 win over No. 24 Northwestern on Saturday, in front of a Homecoming crowd of 95,769, was the fourth in a row for a Nittany Lions team that started the season 0-2. Playing great football and getting better each week, Penn State is on top of the Big Ten Leaders Division.
Here's a breakdown of what we saw from the Nittany Lions:
Special Teams:A mixed day for this group, but we'll start with the positives. Though head coach Bill O'Brien is clearly still reluctant to attempt field goals, Sam Ficken is getting better. Most importantly, his confidence appears to be growing. Ficken got Penn State on the board with a 21-yard field goal late in the first quarter, and he was 4-for-4 on extra point attempts. Nothing spectacular, but it's progress for the sophomore kicker.
Another positive, at least at the start of the game, was the first-half punting of Alex Butterworth. His first punt of the day was downed at the Northwestern 1-yard line. A three-and-out led to Ficken's field goal. In the second quarter, Butterworth pinned the Wildcats back at their own 8-yard line. After another three-and-out, Penn State scored a touchdown.
It was downhill from there, however. Momentum changed quickly when Jesse Della Valle fumbled after calling for a fair catch at the Penn State 17-yard line. That set up Northwestern's first touchdown of the game to cut Penn State's lead to three points. The Wildcats owned the rest of the quarter, scoring another touchdown with 30 seconds left to take a 14-10 lead into halftime. There was another huge special teams mistake late in the third quarter when Butterworth outkicked his coverage on a 54-yard punt, allowing Venric Mark to return the kick 75 yards for a touchdown. Northwestern led 28-17 at that point.
Offense: So much for Northwestern's vaunted run defense. Zach Zwinak turned in another strong performance, running for 121 yards and a touchdown against a team whose rush defense was ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten coming into the game. He also caught six passes for 52 yards. This has something to do with the injuries to Bill Belton and Derek Day, but Zwinak has emerged as Penn State's No. 1 back.
Meanwhile, Matt McGloin turned in another strong performance. His 5-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter put Penn State ahead 32-28. He also threw two touchdown passes and was 35-of-51 for 282 yards, setting a school record for completions in a game. When the Wildcats had all the momentum on their side heading into the third quarter, McGloin led Penn State on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown pass to Allen Robinson (9 catches for 85 yards) to put the Nittany Lions back on top. When Northwestern scored on the punt return late in the third quarter, McGloin took over. He led the offense on an 18-play, 82-yard drive that ended with another touchdown pass to Robinson.
Remarkably, Penn State was 5-for-6 on fourth down attempts, and 10-for-22 on third down tries.
Defense: Penn State's defense was superb. Gerald Hodges (11 tackles), Michael Mauti (9 tackles), and Jordan Hill (8 tackles) led the way, but the Nittany Lions got contributions from everyone. Leading up to the game, there was a lot of talk about Northwestern's talented offense, led by quarterback/running back/receiver Kain Colter. Penn State's defense would have none of that talk. In the fourth quarter, when it mattered most, the defense was great. On three drives, they held Northwestern to just one first down, stopping them on fourth down late in the quarter. Later, Hodges forced a fumble that sealed the win.
Northwestern was 4-of-13 on third down and had 247 yards of total offense, a week after they amassed over 700 yards of offense against Indiana. The fourth-quarter comeback would not have been possible without the defense turning in its best 15 minutes of the season.
Charles Costello is a lifelong fan of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
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