Football: After jumping out to 21-0 lead, offense stalls

Colin Becht and Colin Becht

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Taking the kickoff and the first possession in Saturday’s game at Penn State, Northwestern produced arguably its most efficient drive of the year. The Wildcats marched 74 yards on seven plays, capped by a six-yard touchdown run by junior quarterback Dan Persa.

However, just two hours later, NU produced arguably its worst offensive quarter of the year, possessing the ball for just 12 plays over three different drives that resulted in zero points and one first down.

“We came in at halftime and we just said, ‘Let’s go,'” Penn State linebacker Chris Colasanti said. “We know we’re a great defense, and we knew we just had to show it and we really did in the second half.”

Over the first half, the Cats amassed 239 yards of total offense. The number was cut to just 32 in the third quarter and 130 over the entirety of the second half.

“We laid an egg in the second half,” Persa said.

NU’s offensive struggles, combined with a defense that proved porous to Penn State’s rushing attack, allowed the Nittany Lions to post 35 unanswered points and earn coach Joe Paterno his 400th career victory.

“Someone’s got to put an end to it,” Persa said. “That’s our job as an offense and my job as a leader. You have to put an end to it, and I didn’t do a good job of that.”

Persa, who brilliantly scrambled for 89 yards in the first half, gained just 20 yards in the second half and was sacked four times.

While Fitzgerald admitted that both Persa and the offensive line could have improved their play to limit the sacks, the high number was more a symptom of the deficit the Cats faced rather than a cause.

“I’d like to be a defensive lineman up two scores,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s a pretty good deal. It’s like being a bull in a china shop. You can do a lot of destruction.”

In the third quarter, Persa threw for only 35 yards on just three attempts, part of the offense’s struggles that led to three-and-outs on the Cats’ first two drives of the second half. On the second drive, NU created a very manageable third-and-one situation, but redshirt freshman running back Mike Trumpy was unable to move the chains.

“On the third-and-one you’ve got to get it, and they stuffed us,” Fitzgerald said. “Our goal is to be 100 percent in that situation. Obviously we didn’t execute well enough to get it done.”

Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said that the Nittany Lions were unprepared for the offense the Cats presented early, but they made adjustments at halftime.

“It’s very hard to duplicate (NU’s offense) during the week,” he said. “A couple of times early in the first half we got a different grouping than we thought we were going to get and we had to adjust to that.”

Fitzgerald said that rather than failing to react to any adjustments by Penn State, NU’s struggles purely came down to a lack of momentum.

“We lost momentum,” Fitzgerald said. “They played with a little bit more of a chip on their shoulder, and we’ve got to fix our attitude to be able to seize momentum back.”

The Cats had one chance to swing momentum back in their favor when they drove to the Penn State eight-yard line trailing 35-21 with less than ten minutes remaining. However, the Nittany Lions stepped up in the red zone and forced a turnover on downs with two straight stuffed runs and two incomplete passes.

“We put a great drive together,” Fitzgerald said. “That would have been key.”

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