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Northwestern edges Penn State on last-second field goal

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Jack Mitchell's 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left gave Northwestern a 23-21 win Saturday over Penn State.

Looking to make it three wins in a row since a blowout loss to Ohio State, Penn State traveled to Evanston, Ill., to take on Northwestern Saturday.

The game did not get off to the best start, however, as the PSU offense that put a combined 70 points the last two weeks was nowhere to be found throughout most of the first half. Its first five drives of the game resulted in only 26 yards.

Conversely, Northwestern’s offense gained that many yards on the fourth play of its first drive, a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson to Garrett Dickerson. The play put the Wildcats at the PSU 25, but fortuned favored the Nittany Lions after two incomplete passes and a missed field goal left the score at 0-0.

The Penn State defense continued to hold throughout the first quarter, but Northwestern struck first blood early in the second. A five-play, 59-yard drive culminated in a 14-yard touchdown pass to Christian Jones from Zack Oliver, who replaced an injured Thorson, with 12:56 left in the quarter.

Down 7-0, the Nittany Lions looked determined to respond after driving past the enemy side of the 50. Facing a fourth-and-8 from the NU 36, head coach James Franklin elected to punt rather than attempting a long field goal.

That decision produced negative results, as Northwestern running back Justin Jackson broke free for runs of 48 and 25 yards to put the team in scoring position. Faced with a second-and-goal, Oliver pushed his way into the end zone to make it 13-0 with six minutes remaining. Kicker Jack Mitchell missed the extra point.

Looking once again to respond, Penn State got on the back of its best offensive player, running back Saquon Barkley. The true freshman racked up 45 combined yards on the 78-yard drive, with 7 coming on his touchdown run to put the Lions on the board, 13-7, with 2:18 remaining in the half.

The six-point deficit didn’t last long.

On a low kickoff, Solomon Vault picked up the skipping ball and weaved his way through PSU’s coverage team to take it all the way to the house, regaining NU’s two-possession advantage less than 30 seconds after it lost it.

After uneventful drives by both teams, the Wildcats went into halftime up 20-7. PSU gained 147 total yards in the half compared to NU’s 200-plus.

The Wildcats received the second-half kickoff and went right back to work, once again pushing into PSU territory. The defense stood strong, forcing incomplete passes from Oliver on second and third down to make force a punt.

The Wildcats again threatened later in the quarter, working their way down to the 30, but Penn State caught a break after Mitchell missed the 47-yard field goal attempt. The Nittany Lions took the better-than-average starting field position and made the best of it by mounting a 70-yard scoring drive which ended with a 32-yard touchdown pass from receiver Geno Lewis, who played quarterback in high school, to DaeSean Hamilton to bring the Nittany Lions back within six with 5:04 remaining. 

The momentum looked to further tilt in Penn State’s favor on the following possession, as linebacker Jason Cabinda picked off Oliver, but penalties killed the drive and forced PSU to punt once again.

As it turned out, the momentum swung completely in the team’s favor as the game entered the fourth quarter. After Carl Nassib sacked Oliver, bringing his total to 15.5 on the season, Northwestern punted back to the Nittany Lions. Barkley once again served as a focal point as the back accounted for 50 of the 71 yards covered, resulting in a 13-yard scoring scamper to give Penn State its first lead of the game, 21-20, with 12:22 remaining.

The Penn State defense once again overwhelmed Northwestern on the ensuing drive, forcing a three-and-out. With the ball back, the offense continued to ride Barkley, and two carries for a combined 38 yards put it back in position to build the lead. Events took a turn for the worse, however, when Barkley came up limping after a 14-yard run. The Nittany Lions then turned to quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and he in turn he took a sack and threw an interception to give the Wildcats a new lease on life.

NU drove down to the PSU 38, but the aggressive defense did enough to force an incompletion on third-and-17 and a subsequent punt with 3:19 remaining. Barkley, seemingly recovered, once again took the lead but fell short of the sticks on third-and-1 after taking the direct snap. A punt set NU up at its own 40, and, facing a third-and-17, got into PSU territory with a last-ditch heave to Austin Carr.

From there, the Wildcats drove down to the PSU 16, setting Mitchell up for a redemption field goal with 13 seconds left. The three missed kicks immediately melted from memory, as he nailed the 35-yarder to give Northwestern the lead and the eventual win.

The loss knocked Penn State down to 7-3 on the year, while Northwestern improved to 7-2. Hackenberg completed 21 of 40 passes for 210 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. On the flip side, Barkley continued to show why he’s one of the biggest up-and-comers in college football, as he carried the ball 25 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns and added 50 more yards on six receptions.

Penn State will have a week to regroup before playing its last home game of the season against the Michigan Wolverines Nov. 21.

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