Football: Northwestern offense sputters in rainy 17-7 defeat to No. 11 Penn State


Daily file photo by Joshua Sukoff

Junior running back Evan Hull carries the ball against Miami (Ohio). Hull had 11 carries for 45 yards in Northwestern’s 17-7 loss to No. 11 Penn State on Saturday.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

In a game in which total turnovers (eight) between both teams doubled up the total scores (four), Northwestern couldn’t convert chaos into victory. The Wildcats’ losing streak was extended to four games in a 17-7 defeat at No. 11 Penn State on Saturday.

“I’m proud of our guys and proud of the way they came in here to battle,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We had to battle the elements and battle a top-15 team on the road. We’re a few plays away, but that was one hell of a Big Ten football game.”

While those in attendance withstood the pummeling onslaught of rain, both squads’ offenses couldn’t get much going. The messy affair between the Wildcats (1-4, 1-1 Big Ten) and the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0) featured a harvest of fumbles, plenty of run plays and a host of three-and-outs.

NU’s first five drives were indicative of its many offensive struggles in Happy Valley.

The Cats’ opening three possessions each ended in three-and-outs, and even when the Cats got the ball back courtesy of an interception from redshirt junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher, junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski turned the ball over less than two minutes later. The fifth drive — NU’s shortest non-turnover induced possession of the first half — lasted all of 28 seconds after three consecutive incompletions from Hilinski. It wasn’t until the second quarter that a Cats drive lasted longer than 1:44.

NU entered halftime facing a 14-0 deficit following a dismal first half showing which featured five punts, three turnovers and 78 yards of total offense. 

“I think our offensive guys ran into a really good defense tonight,” Fitzgerald said. “(Penn State) made some pressures that we didn’t maybe adjust to, but those guys fought their tails off.”

Despite the struggles offensively, the Cats defense stepped up to the challenge. NU forced a season-high five turnovers and conceded just three scores to Penn State. Fitzgerald heralded the defense’s effort as a “valiant performance,” one that held the Nittany Lions’ dynamic running attack to just 3.8 yards per carry on 58 rushing attempts — conversely, NU registered a mere 1.1 yards per carry.

Out of the intermission, the Cats began to move the ball downfield to greater success. Deep into the third quarter, Hilinski led NU to the Penn State 47-yard line. After an incomplete pass intended for senior wide receiver Donny Navarro III, Hilinski lined up in the shotgun on second-and-10. 

The Orange, California native found sophomore wideout Jacob Gill in acres of space down the left sideline for an easy 47-yard touchdown. Gill, who came into Saturday’s matchup averaging just one reception a game and 6.8 yards per catch, credited the play’s success with his offseason work alongside Hilinski.

“Me and Ryan, we’ve been working all offseason on vertical go (routes), working on timing with that,” Gill said. “Then, him just laying it out there, perfect ball, body catch it for weather and then going to make a play. It was just a perfect scenario.”

Gill’s touchdown would end up as NU’s only score on the day, with several late game turnover-on-downs sealing the game’s fate. 

Fitzgerald said the onus falls on him to “push the right buttons” in order to get a win, and he wasn’t able to do that Saturday. Still, he said he was proud of the Cats’ effort despite the bitter result.

“We’re 1-1 in the Big Ten and like I told (the team) after the game, that’s all that matters,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re gonna keep grinding, they’ve got a lot of fight in them and I’m really proud of them.”

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