EVANSTON — It was the game that got away. But then the Cats got it back.
Northwestern led Penn State, 20-7, at halftime before what Pat Fitzgerald likes to call “self-inflicted wounds” allowed the Nittany Lions to seize momentum and take a 21-20 lead. But with nine seconds left in the game, Cats kicker Jack Mitchell redeemed himself after two missed field-goal tries and a missed extra point earlier in the game, kicking a game-winning field goal that gave Northwestern a 23-21 comeback win Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field.
“To come back and respond, that’s what you talk about,” Fitzgerald said. “Life isn’t what happens to you, it’s how you respond to it. That’s the old coachism: It’s 10 percent what happens and 90 percent what you do about it. And I thought our guys responded well.”
Things started all right, with backup quarterback Zack Oliver pressed into duty after starter Clayton Thorson was knocked out with a lower-body injury in the first quarter. Oliver threw a touchdown pass to Christian Jones and rushed in from a yard out to put the Cats in front, 13-0.
After Christian Hackenberg led a touchdown drive to half the Northwestern lead, Solomon Vault took the ensuing kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown to again make it a two-touchdown lead.
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With the score what it was at the break, a Northwestern response probably shouldn’t have been necessary, but a quick three-play sequence in the third quarter allowed Penn State to awake from what had generally been an offensive slumber.
After forcing a three-and-out — something the Northwestern defense was doing a lot of early on — Warren Long committed a roughing the kicker penalty on the Penn State punter. The next play saw the Cats flagged for unnecessary roughness, adding another 15 yards to a suddenly long drive. Then came a wild double-reverse trick play that was fumbled, picked up and thrown 32 yards by Geno Lewis to DaeSean Hamilton for a touchdown that cut the lead to 20-14. It also swung the momentum squarely in Penn State’s favor.
Two offensive drives later, the Lions were again into the end zone, this time on a go-ahead scoring rush by Saquon Barkley.
The defense kept the Lions bottled up after that, and the Cats got the ball back with a little more than two minutes remaining. Oliver hit Austin Carr for a 25-yard gain and a first down on a crucial third down, and Justin Jackson rushed for another first down to set up Mitchell’s 35-yard kick.
“We should’ve just finished the game off how we started, and we didn’t,” Jackson said. “We won a close game. It’s hard to win in the Big Ten, and we won. So that’s really what the most important thing is. But we do know that going forward we have to be a lot better when we’re up, just stepping on the throat and enlarging the lead. We didn’t do that today, but it’s a learning experience and it’s always nice to learn from a win.”
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While those penalties and those missed kicks nearly made for a really bad loss, there were plenty of good things that needed to happen for Northwestern to even be in a position to win.
Thorson’s injury came with no points on the board, and an offense that’s struggled all season could’ve collapsed within itself if not for Oliver, who wasn’t spectacular but led several scoring drives and kept things going even through a change at the game’s most important position. He finished with 111 passing yards and a touchdown.
Credit Jackson, too, who broke out of a prolonged slump with a huge day, rushing 28 times for 188 yards. Both the run blocking for Jackson and the pass blocking for Oliver earned the Cats’ offensive line big props after the game, particularly for its effort in the face of a menacing Penn State defensive line.
“Any time your starting quarterback goes down, everybody else has to step up,” Jackson said. “I think Zack came in and did a great job for not having as many (first-team) reps as he probably needed. I think he did a good job, and as an offense collectively we all stepped up when we needed to.”
“You’ve got to credit our offensive line and our offensive staff with our run plan. I thought we had a pretty good plan,” Fitzgerald said. “We stayed patient and stuck to the plan, made a couple little tweaks as the game went along. But to get Justin back going against that type of defense, you’ve got to give credit to the O-line, the super backs and the wideouts for the way that they blocked, but it was huge, especially with Clayton going down, to have Justin step up like that it was big.”
The team bounced back from giving Penn State the lead. The offense bounced back from losing Thorson. And of course Mitchell bounced back from his early struggles to deliver the game’s deciding play.
“I was being reminded the entire time that the game is pretty much on me. It wasn’t a good day for me. If I made my field goals and extra points, we would’ve been up by six at that point, at the last field goal. So it’s on me to kind of right that.”
And he did.