Cats go on the defensive after loss

Matt Donnelly

Randy Walker couldn’t come up with any specific answers about his defense after Saturday’s 38-35 victory by Penn State.

More troubling was that the Northwestern coach was short on solutions, too.

NU let the worst offense in the Big Ten bounce off its linebackers and outrun its secondary for 501 yards – 48 yards more than the Wildcats have given up in any game all season.

Walker said he was speechless, but his expression read more like baffled.

“It comes to a point where you don’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “Who are we going to put in? I’d like to make some significant changes, but I don’t know how to do it. We just got dealt a hand of cards and we’ve got to play them.”

Before Saturday, the best performance the Nittany Lions had put together was a 235-yard display against Michigan. In that game, all of Penn State’s yards came through the air.

When his offensive mechanisms started to sputter and choke earlier in the season, Walker was the first to say that his attack needed a tune-up. But when the Cats put on its worst show to date, Walker was strapped for any quick fixes.

“We can’t go and trade for a couple guys and bring in some free agents – they don’t exist in this game,” he said. “We’ve got to play with who we’ve got.”

Penn State backup running back Eric McCoo’s nine carries for 43 yards was a vast improvement – he had five carries against Michigan for just one yard on Oct. 6. McCoo, who previously had Penn State’s top single-game rushing performance with 47 yards, was surpassed on Saturday by Larry Johnson’s 68 yards. All in all, Penn State marched over the Cats for 213 yards – 50 more than it had amassed in its previous four games combined.

“Their backs were pretty good, but I don’t think any back is good enough where we shouldn’t be able to tackle them,” NU defensive end Napoleon Harris said.

And while five different Penn State ballcarriers dragged NU’s defense for at least 30 yards, Penn State’s quarterbacks put on their own show, throwing for 288 yards – 100 more than the Lions averaged coming into the game.

“We were void out there,” Walker said. “It looked like we were hoping they would screw up. I don’t like tentative play, and I’m very disappointed because that’s what it looked like.”

Agreed Harris: “I think guys just mentally shut down. I think we need to stay aggressive each and every play. I think guys go through a lull sometimes where we get complacent and relaxed, where we know we can get it done. But at the same time, we expected to get it done instead of going out and doing it.”

Part of Penn State’s success can be chalked up to its effective use of the Power-I formation, an offensive scheme NU had seen only a handful of times before. After the game, Penn State coach Joe Paterno said he had decided last week to emphasize the running game in order to pressure a weak NU defensive line.

Schemes aside, the Cats hurt themselves more by failing to stop two Nittany Lions late-game scoring drives. With the game tied in the fourth quarter, NU’s defense stood by as the Lions marched 68 yards on 14 plays for a field goal to go up 31-28. In addition to Johnson and McCoo, Penn State handed off to running backs Omar Easy and Eddie Drummond, who combined for 78 yards on 15 carries.

Several minutes later, the Nittany Lions trailed 35-31 and had the ball on their 31-yard line. And they stepped up again, driving 69 yards on 13 pass plays – eight of them with redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Mills under center – for the winning touchdown. Starting quarterback Matt Senneca and Mills each found wideout Bryant Johnson as he cut across the NU defensive backfield. Johnson grabbed four passes for 55 yards on the drive, including a critical 17-yard slant that put the Lions on NU’s 17-yard line.

“It was just too many missed tackles,” NU linebacker Billy Silva said. “We had them second-and-long or third-and-long all day long, and we just didn’t make plays. It would be 3rd-and-8 or 3rd-and-10, and they’d get a screen or a pass or a run – they were just nickel-and-diming us all the way down the field.”

In total, the Lions ran 91 plays against NU – nearly 30 more than they have run against any other opponent this season.

“We’ve danced around the fire a number of times before, and I warned them a couple of weeks ago that if you dance around that fire long enough, you get burned,” Walker said. “We got burned tonight – there was no magic, there was no miracle, there was no last-second heroics.”