For four games Penn State (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) was able to get by with a shaky offensive line and a slow starting offense. That was not the case Saturday afternoon in front of a homecoming crowd over 100,000 strong. Northwestern (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) put together a defensive game plan that took advantage of Penn State’s offensive line concerns and held the Nittany Lions out of the end zone from start to finish. Northwestern evened its record with a 29-6 victory that was every bit as dominating as the score might indicate. And it could have been worse.
Penn State had just three third-down conversions out of 17 and the Nittany Lions were held to just one fourth-down conversion out of four. That lone fourth down conversion came in the first half from Penn State’s own 30-yard line, a true gamble. With quarterback Christian Hackenberg having another rough performance, Penn State’s offense was held to just 276 yards, including just 60 yards on the ground on 25 rushing attempts. Northwestern frustrated Hackenberg and held him to just 22 of 45 passing and returned his one interception for a touchdown. On Hackenberg’s next play from scrimmage after the pick-six, he was hit and lost a fumble.
Northwestern’s quarterback, Trevor Siemian, had a much more enjoyable afternoon with 258 yards accumulated with much better protection in front of him. Dan Vitale caused problems in Penn State’s secondary for much of the game, hauling in seven passes for 113 yards. The Wildcats even managed to play some inspired football after Matt Harris had to be taken off the field on a stretcher following a collision with Hackenberg. Harris was treated on the field for a good five minutes before being carted off the field. He was taken to a nearby hospital, but early reports seem to be as positive as can be given the extend of head and neck injuries. Here’s hoping the positive reports continue.
Penn State head coach James Franklin will have plenty to work on in the bye week with his staff and players. This particular game showcased a number of concerns about this Penn State team, but it seems many of the concerns can be addressed by getting something reliable out of the offensive line. Hackenberg has been off-balanced for much of the season and has rarely had good protection in front of him. Rutgers and Northwestern excelled in bringing a pass rush, and the running game has never been effective this season outside of last weekend’s game against UMass. The impact sanctions have had on recruiting the past couple of years is showing most at offensive line. How much can be corrected or fixed in a short period of time may not be enough for Penn State the rest of the way.
Penn State will play a night game at Michigan in two weeks after a bye to prepare. Northwestern will return home for their second Big Ten game next weekend against Wisconsin. The Wildcats will be facing a much more potent running attack when the Badgers come to town.