This lack of production simply killed Northwestern. Penn State packed the box and successfully stopped the run early, forcing the Wildcats into an almost pass-only offense. At that point, with Northwestern passing the ball at an extremely high rate, PSU was able to play to the pass.
Persa slashed the secondary for nearly 300 yards, but Penn State was, for the most part, able to keep the Wildcat receivers in front of the secondary. A costly turnover, dropped passes and missed opportunities stopped NU's best scoring chances.
Persa accounted for 294 passing yards and 9 rushing yards, close to 75 percent of Northwestern's total offense. The main Achilles heel in 2010 for the Wildcats was the fact that Persa accounted for almost all of Northwestern's offensive production. His unbelievable strength and toughness led the Wildcats, and the team was exposed severely after Persa suffered his season-ending injury.
While that lack of balance did not altogether burn the Wildcats in 2010 when Persa was healthy, he is not the same player he was a year ago. Several times against PSU, Persa chose for a short pass with open space in front of him. The times the senior did choose to run, he was clearly hesitant before taking off.
Kain Colter had much more success, gaining 79 yards on the ground (though he only had 51 total yards because of -28 yards on two sacks). His success was mainly limited to the first half, however. Entering halftime, Colter had 4 carries for 61 yards. Not including the sacks, Colter carried just three times in the second half.
Against Michigan, the running game was most successful with Colter running the option to Adonis Smith or Venric Mark, giving Northwestern an incredibly quick attack. According to Colter, Penn State's defense deserves credit for limiting the NU on the ground.
"We had a big emphasis on the veer and they did a good job taking that away," Colter said. "They kind of minimized that part of our game plan."
The Wildcats were admittedly shorthanded at running back, with Mike Trumpy out for the season and Adonis Smith banged up this week, according to Fitzgerald. Losing Smith, the speediest back NU has, was a significant reason for the lack of option plays. With personnel out, however, the Wildcats coaching staff needs to adjust and find creative ways to get the ground game involved.
The team, however, may not be as worried about the one-dimensional play. When asked about the running after the game, Colter said he thought the lack of production running was partly because the passing attack was so successful.
"I thought, in the passing, we were getting a lot of yards, a lot of first downs," Colter said. "If it's not broke, don't fix it."
Given that NU has been held scoreless in the second half at home against Big Ten opponents, however, something is clearly broken with Northwestern. Whether or not the Wildcats will find the fix they are so desperately seeking is a question that will linger for at least one more week.