Football: Price: Northwestern’s underwhelming offensive performance sells out amazing defense in loss to Penn State

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Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski looks down the opposition before a snap. The Wildcats managed just seven points against No. 11 Penn State, their lowest point total of the season.

Lawrence Price, Audio Editor

Have you ever experienced a time of gesturing to shake someone’s hand, a sign of friendship, fellowship, or even agreement, and they don’t extend their hand back? That is the easiest way to describe the dynamic between Northwestern’s defense and offense in a road loss to No. 11 Penn State on Saturday, losing 17-7.

In a rain-soaked contest filled with that left both teams covered in mud, the NU (1-4, 1-1 Big Ten) defense took advantage of a slippery pigskin and soggy turf, forcing the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) offense to turn the ball over five times — four fumbles and one interception. The five takeaways were the defense’s highest total since its  top-25 matchup against a No. 19 Wisconsin team in 2020, a 17-7 win.

To put this in perspective, Penn State hadn’t turned the ball over five times in over a decade, with the last instance in the Outback Bowl in 2011 against Florida.

Yet, even with these ample opportunities and possessions, they gained eight total yards off of those five chances. Although three of them began on Penn State’s side of the field, the offense was unable to score, nor reach the red zone off these turnovers.

And what’s worse? The Cats scored seven points the entire game, its lowest since their 35-7 loss against Wisconsin last season — the team NU’s plays next Saturday.

Although the weather caused both offenses to prioritize ball safety and Penn State’s defense played at a high level, the Cats’ inability to capitalize on prized possessions is unacceptable. This included junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski not converting on fourth-and-goal at the Penn State 1, and a four-play, eight-yard drive following a defensive forced fumble that mercifully ended the offense’s day.

Outside of the touchdown drive and its optimistic 74-yard follow-up that ended in PSU’s goal-line stand, the struggles stretched from start to finish. The Cats’ first five drives consisted of four three-and-outs, an interception, and 13 yards total by the end of the first 15 minutes. 

On the other side of the pigskin, the NU defense tallied back-to-back turnovers in the first quarter: a forced fumble by junior defensive back Garnett Hollis Jr. and recovered by junior linebacker Xander Mueller and a diving interception by junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher. Although Penn State was able to score on the next two of three possessions, both came off NU turnovers, allowing them to start at their own 40-yard line and the Cats 45.   

A major difference between the two offenses wasn’t the third down completions, as both groups went four for 15 on third down attempts. It was more so the questionable play calling at pivotal points in the game, and the lack of momentum gained before a third or fourth down. 

Again, this trend became evident early in the contest, where NU’s first eight plays were runs and gained the Cats a total of 14 yards. This included a Wildcat formation run to junior running back Cam Porter on a third-and-two, resulting in a loss of four yards. The Cats then proceeded to put the ball in Hilinski’s hands five of the next seven plays, amounting to zero completions and an interception.

These struggles summed up the offense’s fortunes throughout the game in Happy Valley. Over their 14 possessions, the Cats had five three-and-outs, three turnovers and three turnovers on downs.

NU’s defense had — hands down — its best performance of the season versus Penn State, limiting a team that averaged 38.8 points per game entering the contest to 17. Not to mention, the stingy defensive effort came against the 11th best team in the country. And facing a team of the Nittany Lions’ status, winning the turnover battle and doing everything you ask out of coordinator Jim O’Neil’s defense, you have to execute on the chances you get, which NU didn’t do.

Look to the atrocious weather that slowed the Penn State offense or to the opportunities an embattled defense gave them and it’s clear — this loss is on the offense. 

When looking back on any game, there are always plays that each team will want back and this game is a prime example. NU’s defense and weather set the table for the offense to eat, they just never did. 

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