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.
2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know
What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected.
It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line.
All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams.
5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten
That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game.
Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame.
Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play.
On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.
4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance
It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances.
Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game.
OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013.
A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy.
3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game
The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting.
Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having.
It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season.
As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year.
Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…
2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season
One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year.
Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13.
Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis?
1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game
A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time.
There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016.
In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team.
How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day.
WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena
After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season.
On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener.
Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside.
Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win
Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon.
The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.
It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program.
It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football.
The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.
Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts.
Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day.
But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers.
The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers.
Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game.
But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.
But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play.
Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time.
Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own.
It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt.
This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six.
Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern.
The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh.
For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players.
The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility.
Thorson dials up best against MSU once again
As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing.
That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans.
Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games.
History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes.
It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite.
At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense.
Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game.
Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for.
Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too.
But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game.
Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter.
It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game.
He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19.
The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play.
Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well.