The Northwestern Wildcats had the perfect gameplan. Saquon Barkley was doing nothing against their over-focused defense. The chance was there for Northwestern to assert itself and put Penn State on notice early.
The Wildcats were first and goal on their first drive. They moved the ball down the field, converting a fourth down deep in Nittany Lions territory to set up the and goal situation. This was their chance to catch Penn State sleeping and take command of the game.
The first play saw Justin Jackson go nowhere and added a hold on top of that. Clayton Thorson took a sack on the next play. Then another Jackson run going nowhere. And finally, Thorson felt the pressure on third and goal and heaved a cross-field pass that Penn State corralled.
Northwestern’s 12-play drive into the red zone ended with nothing. And that was about all the Northwestern offense could muster the rest of the way in a 31-7 loss to Penn State at Ryan Field on Saturday.
Clayton Thorson finished the game throwing 19 for 36 for 142 yards. Justin Jackson had 66 yards on 16 carries — his long run was a 28-yard scamper that got docked 15 yards for a facemask at the end. The Wildcats had just 265 total yards and shot themselves in the foot with three turnovers — the one in the red zone on the opening drive, a fumble at midfield on the following Northwestern drive and a Hail Mary pick to end the first half.
But the turnovers were not what hurt Northwestern. Simply, the Wildcats could not get out of the shadow of their own end zone or move the ball. Even a little bit.
Northwestern had six of the first seven drives in the second half end in three and outs. The only one that did not was a four-play drive where Northwestern picked up a first down on the first play. That might as well be a three-and-out for the Wildcats.
The Nittany Lions took advantage as they finally burst through the dam and grew their 10-0 lead into a 31-0 advantage. Northwestern did not score until backup Matt Alviti led a touchdown drive on the team’s final possession.
Even with Northwestern holding Heisman Trophy frontrunner Saquon Barkley to -1 yards in the first half and 75 yards on 16 carries for the game — 53 of those yards came on one play — Northwestern was never in this game. And they could point very clearly to their offense and it anemic play as the reason.
The Wildcats, even down 10-0 at halftime, had every chance to turn this into a game. Instead, they got blown out and beaten up once again. Northwestern had zero answers offensively for a Penn State defense putting pressure on them from all sides. The team had no time or space to execute their offense.
The Wildcats’ offense all season has struggled to give Thorson time to throw. Much less to create the run room for Jackson to get going downhill. Jackson had some flashes of his usual play, but the Nittany Lions eventually closed him down. His running room was limited and he constantly had to avoid rushers in the backfield.
The same could be said for Thorson.
With little time to throw, Thorson was rushing throws and firing them into tight windows. Penn State was hounding receivers and not giving Thorson many options to deliver the ball.
It seemed as though every problem for Northwestern this season came to a head again against Penn State. Where the defense got consistent penetration and got off the field consistently, growing from struggles in the first weeks of the season, the offense seems to have regressed. The team did not even sniff a consistent bit of moving the ball in the second half.
The Wildcats never figured out how to scheme around their poor blocking or get the ball to playmakers. Maybe there is no way to scheme around an offensive line that consistently gives up pressure like this team does.
Eventually, the defense was going to crack.
Northwestern bit hard on everything involving Saquon Barkley, banking on making enough plays against Chase McSorley to stall drives. McSorley made them pay overall. That was a gamble the Wildcats were willing to lose.
What they were not willing to do was be on the field for most of the game. Or consistently lose the field position battle. It is tough to win any game when Penn State is starting near midfield on every possession. Hunter Niswander is not going to flip field position on his own.
Everything seemed to mount for Northwestern to give Penn State every advantage. Eventually, they just burst through. The Wildcats had no chance.
That has how it has been for much of the year. Northwestern dropped both games they needed to win (or split) to achieve their Big Ten title dreams. Instead, Northwestern is asking itself big questions about where it goes with its offense.
The team’s defense will do plenty to keep them in games. The Wildcats will not see any teams as good as they saw the last two weeks. That provides a little hope. But not much. Not for a team that believed it could win the Big Ten at the start of the year.
Northwestern though is not going to find itself much success in the rest of its manageable schedule without the offense taking a step up. It has struggled all game, save for a game against hapless Bowling Green. In the Big Ten for sure, defensive lines are excited to blitz and pressure this offense.
The Wildcats, nearing the midpoint of their season, have a long way to go to find an identity offensively. And after a disappointing effort against Penn State, those Big Ten West dreams feel officially over.
Whether there is anything for Northwestern to salvage from this pitiful offense, that is the question for the remaining seven games.