A Wildcat always pays his debts.
On a brisk November morning in Evanston, Illinois, that Wildcat was Jack Mitchell, who, in the midst of a tough day, made a 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left that gave the 'Cats (7-2, 3-2 B1G) a 23-21 win over the Penn State Nittany Lions (7-3, 4-2 B1G)
If you love up-tempo, high scoring and generally exciting football, the first quarter of the Northwestern-Penn State probably wasn’t for you. The first fifteen minutes of this B1G matchup at Ryan Field saw a collective total of eight punts, six first downs, 109 yards … and zero points.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson, however, proved to be a bright spot early, as he built off a strong second half of play in the Wildcats’ last game action against Nebraska by completing five passes on eight attempts for 58 yards in the opening quarter, highlighted by two big completions to Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson on Northwestern’s opening drive. The drive ended in a missed 39-yard field goal attempt by Jack Mitchell, one of three missed kicks on the day for the junior, including a key extra point in the second quarter.
The first score of the game came early in the second quarter on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Christian Jones from second string quarterback Zack Oliver, who replaced Thorson late in the first quarter after he came off with a lower body injury – and didn't return. After forcing another Penn State punt, the Wildcats struck again, this time on a one-yard quarterback keeper by Oliver, putting the Wildcats up 13-0 (after a Mitchell missed PAT). But the story of this drive was Justin Jackson, who, after failing to eclipse 40 yards rushing in his previous three games, broke off runs of 48 and 25 yards to set up Oliver’s score.
Jackson, who rushed for 188 yards on 28 carries, stressed the importance of establishing the run.
“Any time your starting quarterback goes down everyone else has to step up," Jackson said. "As an offense, we all stepped up when we needed to. I’m really proud of my O-Line and the receivers blocking on the outside. I think they did a really good job against a really good defense, so all credit goes to them."
Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald emphasized the significance of Jackson bouncing back from his disappointing performances the last few weeks.
“I think we stayed patient with the run game," Fitzgerald said. "The last month has been a challenge, no doubt, but to see the way he stepped up today was huge.”
Penn State didn't stay down for long though, as the Nittany Lions answered Northwestern’s second score of the game, roaring back with a swift five play 91-yard drive, punctuated by a seven-yard touchdown run for runningback Saquon Barkley, cutting the Wildcats lead to 13-7.
And then, just when you thought Northwestern football couldn’t get any more exciting, Solomon Vault took Penn State’s ensuing kickoff 96 yards to the house after bobbling the pickup, restoring Northwestern’s 13-point advantage. The Wildcats went into halftime leading 20-7, outgaining the Nittany Lions 220 to 147 and converting 11 first downs to Penn State’s six over the opening two quarters.
But of course, this is Northwestern football. Momentum shifted in the second half following a running into the kicker penalty when the Nittany Lions connected a 32-yard touchdown pass from receiver Geno Lewis to Daesean Hamilton off a double reverse. The score remained 20-14 until Barkley punched in his second touchdown of the day from 13 yards out. A successful Penn State PAT put the Nittany Lions in front 21-20, and Jack Mitchell’s missed extra point loomed large.
Defense dominated the rest of the contest, as neither offensive side was able to generate much downfield movement. That is, until a key third down stop gave Zack Oliver and the Northwestern offense the ball on their own 46, down one, one timeout remaining, and 2:13 left to play.
Following a false start and two incompletions, Oliver delivered a high arcing, 23-yard dime to a diving Austin Carr along the sideline down to the Penn State 36. Five Jackson rushes later, Jack Mitchell was set up for redemption from 35 yards out. Suffice it to say, without a doubt from literally anyone in Ryan Field, Mitchell drilled it, putting Northwestern up 23-21 with nine seconds remaining.
“If I had made my field goals and extra points we had been up six at that last field goal," Mitchell said. "It’s on me to right that."
The purple faithful let out a collective exhale, as there proved to be no Miami Hurricane-esque miracle in the cards for Penn State in the waning seconds. The Wildcats held on for a crucial two-point victory at home.
“We’re in that playoff mentality now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got a lot of goals left in front of us. You work your tail off for 11 months to make November significant, and obviously it’s significant for us now.”
Northwestern will look to build on its two-game winning streak next week when the Purdue Boilermakers (2-7, 1-4 B1G) travel to Ryan Field.
News and Notes:
- Solomon Vault’s 96-yard kickoff return marked his second return touchdown of the season and the third of his career. Both represent Northwestern school records.
- Nick VanHoose’s 4th quarter interception of Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg marked Hackenberg’s first interception in his previous 203 attempts, the longest such stretch of his career.
- Justin Jackson’s 188 rushing yards today marked a career high for the sophomore runningback.
- George R.R. Martin and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were hanging out at Ryan Field on Saturday. So that’s pretty cool.