Losing streak hits five as Northwestern falls to No. 21 Penn State 34-24

Colin Becht

Northwestern has developed a bad habit of letting second-half leads slip away. On Saturday, it was Penn State that left the door open for a comeback; the Wildcats just didn’t take advantage.

NU (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) was held scoreless in the second half, falling 34-24 to Penn State (7-1, 4-0) for its fifth-consecutive loss.

“You look at our performance tonight, it’s a tale of what-ifs,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had plenty of opportunities, especially in the second half to do the things that winners do, but unfortunately we weren’t able to accomplish that.”

The win was the 408th in coach Joe Paterno’s career, tying him with former Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson for the most in the history of Division I football.

“I went to bed last night and said, ‘Jeez, if we win tomorrow, I’m going to be tied with Eddie Robinson,'” Paterno said. “Eddie Robinson was one of the greatest guys to ever coach.”

After both offenses exploded in the first half for a combined 51 points, the defenses took over as the Nittany Lions came up with stop after stop to deny the Cats any shot at a comeback.

While NU put up points on four of its six drives in the first half, the Cats ended the game with four punts, an interception and a turnover on downs, wasting the best second-half performance by the NU defense this season.

“We didn’t execute when we needed to,” senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert said. “Big players make big plays when they need to, and we didn’t do that tonight.”

The Cats gained just 125 yards of offense in the second half after racking up 281 before halftime and failed to put points on the board despite getting inside the Nittany Lions’ 30-yard line twice. On the opening drive of the second half, NU drove to the Penn State 22 before defensive tackle Jordan Hill tipped senior quarterback Dan Persa’s pass, causing the ball to float into the hands of linebacker Gerald Hodges.

“Persa was getting the ball off low on a lot of those plays,” Hill said. “(Defensive line) coach (Larry Johnson) told us, ‘Get your hand up when you see him leaving the pocket and going to throw the little crossing routes.’ I saw it, and I came over the top. I was going to try and make the sack, but I saw he was going to throw and I put my hand up and hit the ball.”

Hodges’ interception return to the NU 19 set up running back Silas Redd for the lone score of the second half. Redd dominated the Cats on the ground as he bounced off tackles to pick up 164 yards on 18 carries for an average of 9.1 yards per carry.

“Missed tackles don’t win you games,” senior safety Brian Peters said. “Missed tackles don’t get the ball back in the hands of the offense. The more we can get off the field, the better chance (the offense has) to put points on the board.”

Sacks consistently halted promising NU drives as Persa, sophomore Kain Colter and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian were sacked a combined seven times.

“We just had to close the pocket, me and (defensive tackle) Devon (Still) were getting upfield a lot,” Hill said. “(We were) working away from the middle of the field a lot. We just worked on getting straight up field and then working back inside.”

No two sacks were more crushing than when Colter was brought down behind the line on back-to-back plays midway through the fourth quarter to knock the Cats out of field goal range. Those two plays dropped NU back 28 yards from the Penn State 13 to the 41, preventing the Cats from closing the gap to one score.

“We had an opportunity to cut it to a one-score game with about eight minutes and change left,” Fitzgerald said. “Just check it down and keep moving forward.”

The defensive stop marked the first time this year that Penn State held an opponent scoreless on a drive that reached the red zone.

The Nittany Lions’ sacks often came in pairs, like the two on Colter, killing budding NU drives. Persa was sacked twice in a row with the score tied 7-7 in the first quarter to kill a chance for the Cats to take an early lead. He was brought down again on consecutive plays midway through the third quarter in Nittany Lions’ territory.

Persa, who completed 26-of-34 passes for 294 yards, left the game midway through the fourth quarter with a left foot injury. Fitzgerald said that the injury was not serious and that Persa could have reentered the game.

In stark contrast with the way the game ended, both teams exploded in the first half. Penn State never punted the ball in the opening stanza, picking up points on every offensive drive.

Some of those struggles might have been due to changes in the NU starting lineup. The Cats mixed in five new defensive starters, only one of these swaps due to injury. Regulars Vince Browne, Bryce McNaul, Ibraheim Campbell and David Nwabuisi all began the game on the bench. The shakeup was to no avail as the Cats gave up 293 yards of offense in the first half.

“We’ve got open competition every week,” Fitzgerald said. “If you don’t get it figured out and you don’t play fundamentally better or you don’t play consistently, I’ve got one of the best seats in Ryan Field. You’re going to stand next to me.”

The Cats kept pace with the Nittany Lions early as Persa scored with both his legs and his arm and Colter found running room in the option offense. Colter’s 46-yard scamper in the second quarter represented nearly half of NU’s rushing yards as the Cats struggled to move against Penn State’s imposing defensive line.

“They’re pretty good,” Colter said of the Nittany Lions’ defensive line. “They have some playmakers out there, some big boys.”

After NU took a 24-20 lead with 47 seconds remaining in the first half on a 25-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Jeff Budzien, Penn State marched down the field in 40 seconds to take the lead for good on a one-yard plunge by running back Stephfon Green. Though it didn’t seem likely at the time given the shootout nature of the first half, Green’s touchdown proved to be the winning score.

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