Football: Wildcats muscle their way to improbable victory over Penn State


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian fires downfield during Northwestern’s 29-6 victory over Penn State on Saturday. Siemian threw for 258 yards and rushed for three touchdowns in the upset victory.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

STATE COLLEGE, Penn. — After a turbulent and disappointing first three games of the season, Northwestern fans have something to be excited about.

The Wildcats (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) stifled Penn State (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday in the Nittany Lions’ homecoming game by grabbing an early lead and riding a stout defense to earn a victory in their conference opener.

“For us it was a whole attitude change,” junior superback Dan Vitale said. “From an attitude and toughness standpoint, we were at a whole different level.”

The offense looked better than it has all season during the first quarter, utilizing short fields generated by good defense and special teams play. NU held Penn State to a three-and-out on its first possession, and junior wide receiver Miles Shuler returned the ensuing punt 42 yards to set the Cats up at the Nittany Lion 31 yard line.

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian marched the offense down to the goal line, capping the drive with a one-yard sneak for the touchdown.

He repeated the performance on NU’s very next drive, looking poised in the pocket and completing several key passes down the field to again set up another successful quarterback sneak from the one yard line.

“We haven’t been very good on offense,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been down a ton of receivers and skill guys. … We’ve finally gotten them back since the bye week, and that allows us to get up to the tempo that we want to play at.”

The oft-criticized Siemian finished with a 57 percent completion rate for 258 yards and an interception but made big plays throughout the game by taking advantage of a soft Penn State zone defense to find open receivers downfield.

Siemian’s favorite target was Vitale, who finished with seven grabs for 113 yards by finding open space in the middle of the field.

“Last week (against Western Illinois) we tried to keep it more vanilla,” Vitale said. “We opened up our passing game this week.”

The Cats’ offense seemed to sputter a bit after the opening frame, highlighted by a fake field goal attempt that was stopped well short of the end zone, but 14 points proved to be more than enough for the win.

Defense led the way for NU, holding Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg to a dismal 22 of 45 passing for 216 yards and an interception.

Fans of both teams experienced a frightening moment late in the third quarter. Hackenberg was scrambling up the left sideline, where sophomore cornerback Matthew Harris met him to force him out of bounds. Hackenberg dove and lowered his helmet, delivering a blow to the crown of Harris’ helmet that seemed to knock Harris out immediately.

The sophomore lay motionless on the ground for several minutes before finally delivering a thumbs-up to the crowd as he was carted off. Fitzgerald revealed after the game that “all tests came back clear” and that Harris would travel back to Evanston with the team.

Elsewhere on the defense, redshirt freshman linebacker Anthony Walker had a breakout performance filling in for injured senior Colin Ellis. Walker was all over the field with eight tackles and also offered a great Ellis impersonation to open the fourth quarter by intercepting a Hackenberg pass and returning it for a touchdown.

“They were dinking and dunking us on quick passes,” Walker said about the play. “(Hackenberg) looked me off a little bit, but I just made a great play I guess.”

The strength of the defense was the pass rush, which was average at best with eight sacks in the first three games. NU got to Hackenberg four times, including a sack by last week’s big performer, sophomore defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo and a strip-sack by true freshman defensive end Xavier Washington.

“You just see his confidence gaining,” Fitzgerald said of Odenigbo. “(Penn State) was keeping running backs in to chip him, and that’s a sign of respect.”

The Cats have a week to prepare for their next contest, the Big Ten home opener against No. 19 Wisconsin.

“There’s still a lot of room for improvement, and things to clear up,” Fitzgerald said, “but I think we took a positive step in the right direction today.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote
Read more football coverage on our Gameday blog.