EVANSTON — Jack Mitchell didn’t need to be reminded that the game was on him.
The Northwestern kicker missed a pair of field-goal tries and an extra point earlier in Saturday’s game, and it was that missed extra point that looked really big when Penn State scored to take a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter.
“I was being reminded the entire time that the game is pretty much on me,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t a good day for me. If I made my field goals and extra points, we would’ve been up by six. … So it’s on me to kind of right that.”
Right it he did, as Mitchell’s 35-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining gave the Cats a 23-21 lead and a 23-21 win over the visiting Nittany Lions.
But a lot more went into that boot than just lining up and kicking.
The missed kicks from earlier in the game loomed largest in the minds of many, and how could Mitchell not be one of the ones thinking about his early misses? He certainly didn’t need reminding, but that’s what he got on the sideline.
“I felt good in practice all week, and however it happened, it just didn’t translate over to the game. Just got to try to not let yourself get down at all, even though you’re not doing well,” Mitchell said. “Fitz was telling me the whole game, ‘You’re going to be coming up big for us at the end of the game.’ People coming up to me just like, ‘Keep your head in it.’ Just try to stay as focused and calm as possible.”
When Northwestern forced a Penn State punt in the game’s final minutes, it sure looked like the stars were aligning for Mitchell to redeem himself. The Cats’ offense took over with a little more than two minutes left, and Zack Oliver’s big third-down conversion got Northwestern into Penn State territory.
But how far did the offense need to go with time melting away? Mitchell missed with the ball at the Lions’ 21- and 30-yard lines earlier in the game. The destination, it turns out, was predetermined.
“Our plan was once we got inside the 33 that we were going to kick the field goal to win,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They were bringing a lot of pressure, trying to outnumber us in the box. I thought (offensive coordinator Mick McCall) called terrific two-minute drive. … Huge, huge play by Zack. And then once we crossed the 33, Jack felt good.”
“That’s something I kind of go through in pregame warmup,” Mitchell said. “I say what I’m good from going this way, this direction and the other side of the field, as well. And that was just what I said in pregame.”
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Luckily for Mitchell, running back Justin Jackson gave him better than the 33-yard line, getting the ball to the 19-yard line. He also got the ball right in the middle of the field, per Mitchell’s request.
“Fitz came up to me with however many seconds were left and said, ‘Do you want the ball on the left has or the middle?’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like the middle, but whatever you have,’” Mitchell said to laughs. “But there was one more play, and then Justin got to the middle of the field. That was a good thing.”
It was a very good thing, but for all the stuff the Cats could control, there was luck involved, too. Penn State picked to kick in a specific direction at the beginning of the game, and that benefitted Northwestern, as Fitzgerald and Co. did a little research before the game to figure out how the Lake Michigan winds would be blowing in the fourth quarter. You know, just in case there was a crucial field goal that needed to be made.
“We had the wind at our back. Little bit of weather.com checking. We got what we wanted,” Fitzgerald said. “We knew in the fourth quarter the wind was going to shift to the north a little bit, and it did. So when they decided to give us the wind that we thought about in the fourth quarter, I was kind of excited about that.”
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With the perfect spot and the perfect conditions, Mitchell’s kick sailed through to change a one-point deficit into a two-point lead.
“I’ve got great confidence in Jack. I had full confidence that he was going to make that kick,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s pretty good, and when a guy misses a few, you don’t lose confidence in him, you keep talking to him about being fundamentally sound. He looked like he put a great strike on that last one.”
It wasn’t the first big-time kick for Mitchell. He booted the game-winner that beat Notre Dame in overtime last season. He said that experience helped a great deal this time around, providing him with something to relate to when making this clutch kick.
“I’d say that the Notre Dame was a lot of good practice. With that under my belt, I felt like this was not as big of a moment,” Mitchell said. “That just really helped me stay focused, having that mental attitude, just doing that before.”
It was perfect redemption for the kicker whose gaffe almost made for the difference in the game. If Penn State wins by one, the difference is the missed extra point. Instead, the difference was a made kick by Mitchell. Instead, he got to play hero.
“I knew it was going to come down to me the whole time,” Mitchell said. “It was a close game. Big Ten games are always close, so you kind of just have to expect that.”