Sidebar: Big plays break game open

Danny Daly

Even though starting quarterback Mike Kafka left the game with an apparent hamstring injury in the middle of the second quarter, Northwestern had a chance to win with 15 minutes to go. The score was tied at 13, and the Wildcats’ defense was playing about as well as it has all season against one of the top teams in the country.

Then No. 12 Penn State took the lead with a touchdown on its first drive of the final quarter and found the end zone on the first play of its next two possessions. That was the last of the scoring and gave the Nittany Lions enough of a cushion to comfortably close out their 34-13 win.

“We had a pretty good performance outside of those two plays,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But those two plays are what cost us the game – they turned it from a one-score game to a three-score game. Can’t do that and expect to win.”

The first big gain came on a 53-yard connection from quarterback Daryll Clark to wide receiver Derek Moye, who leads Penn State in catches, yards and touchdowns this year. It was the longest reception of Moye’s career.

The Cats were playing a cover-2 scheme, and sophomore safety Brain Peters was late getting over to pick up Moye after junior cornerback Justan Vaughn let him go. Clark rolled right and hit Moye in stride.

“Brian was just a little too aggressive and tried to bite on the out route,” senior safety Brad Phillips said. “The receiver got over top of him and made a nice catch.”

After NU was forced to punt, Penn State lit up the board once again. Running back Evan Royster sprinted through a crease on the left side and ran 69 yards for an easy score.

Those two plays lasted only 20 seconds, but they turned what had been a fiercely fought game into a blowout.

“It was big for us,” said Nittany Lions linebacker Sean Lee, who finished with a game-high 12 tackles. “The momentum went our way after that. …Once we were able to make some big plays like that, it kind of stalled them.”

The loss to Penn State was the third consecutive game in which NU has allowed a touchdown on the first play of a drive. Indiana scored on the first play from scrimmage, when tailback Darius Willis ran around right end for 70 yards. The week before, Michigan State running back Larry Caper raced 22 yards into the end zone after a fumbled kickoff.

Despite the two major lapses, NU’s defense was impressive against Penn State, particularly against the run. Royster had rushed for the second-most yards in the Big Ten going into Saturday’s game, but he only gained 49 yards on his other 14 carries.

The emphasis on stopping the run did give Penn State some chances in the passing game, though.

“They were stacking the box, and we were able to throw the ball,” Royster said. “We were able to go against their defensive backs, get some matchups that we liked and take advantage.”

That said, the Cats’ strategy helped prevent the Nittany Lions from consuming a lot of the clock. Penn State ranked third in the country in third down conversion percentage coming into Saturday’s game, but it moved the chains just three times in 10 attempts.

Ultimately, the Cats’ effort didn’t result in a victory. With a trip to No. 4 Iowa looming, NU can’t afford another bad quarter down the stretch.

“We played a great game for three quarters, but that’s just not enough to win a Big Ten game against a team like Penn State,” junior punter and kicker Stefan Demos said.