Northwestern loses to its own game plan
October 7, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Northwestern's wins this season have been set up by three fundamental principles: The Wildcats have controlled time of possession, run more plays than their opponents and outgained them on the ground.
The Cats have achieved all of that since opening week and have cruised to wins at Ryan Field. However, on Saturday, Penn State accomplished every one of those benchmarks, and NU consequentially suffered its first loss of the 2012 season.
"It's a complete role reversal of our blueprint for success," Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We were on the field way too long. We weren't sustaining drives. Our blueprint is exactly what they did for success. We got beat at our own game and credit goes to Penn State."
The Nittany Lions ran 99 plays against the Cats' defense and controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes of the 60-minute contest. They racked up 30 first downs and converted on 15 of 28 third- and fourth-down opportunities. Penn State had only two drives that went three-and-out compared to NU, which had its first four drives end after three plays.
NU's defense, a unit that is used to competing against high octane offenses, started to wilt in the fourth quarter as Penn State continued to possess the ball. The Nittany Lions gashed the Cats in the second half with 107 rushing yards, five less than NU had the entire game. Although sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell was reluctant to admit it, Fitzgerald said the defense's fatigue was evident in the fourth quarter, when Penn State scored 22 points and held the ball for 11 minutes and 45 seconds.
"When you get worn out on defense, you're going to give up plays," Fitzgerald said. "Our defense kept us in the game for the first three quarters, but the time of possession wore as the game went on and obviously wore us down."
The only game during which NU did not dominate those three statistics was its win over Syracuse in the season opener. The Cats lost the time of possession battle and ran 23 fewer plays than the Orange, but survived thanks to touchdowns on defense and special teams. After that game, Fitzgerald also commented on the defense tiring as the game went on.
Campbell dispelled the notion that the two games were similar, saying the first game of the season feels a lot different than the sixth. He said by this point in the season, NU has played enough football to know how to manage its energy.
"The first game of the season is nothing compared to now," he said. "We're in football shape, we know what a game feels like, we've been through a couple of games. That's no excuse for us losing this game; we got to fight through and focus up and get off the field when we're supposed to."
Despite the loss, the Cats are still confident that they could have won the game. Fitzgerald said he still believes in his team based on what he saw Saturday.
"Things didn't go great, but we had a chance to win the football game," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't get their 'B' game today, we got their 'A' game and we were toe-to-toe, jaw-to-jaw with them all the way to the end, when we really lost it."