Penn State carried a 4-0 record into Saturday's homecoming game with Northwestern at Beaver Stadium, despite playing anything but perfect ball through the first third of the season. The 29-6 whipping at the hand of the Wildcats showed exactly how far from perfect the Nittany Lions are.
Their offensive line played its worst game of the season, giving up four sacks and allowing the PSU backs to total just 50 net rushing yards. The special teams came unraveled in the first half. And even the defense, which played well overall, allowed 166 yards in the opening quarter as State slipped into a 14-0 hole.
It all added up to the first loss of James Franklin's young career at the helm of the Nittany Lions, who are now 4-1 and 1-1 in the Big Ten heading into a bye week. The Wildcats improved to 2-2 and 1-0.
You look how we've played all year long, we've started some games slow, Franklin said. But we've been able to come back and rally late in games. And you can only do that so many times. It's gonna come back to haunt you.
The nightmare lasted 60 minutes Saturday. Here is how we saw it.
MAN OF THE HOUR: Difficult to imagine how bad this game would have gotten for PSU without the play of LB Mike Hull. The senior had a career-high 16 tackles.
CLOSE SECOND: WR DaeSean Hamilton was the only real threat on the PSU offense. He had six catches for 100 yards. As a team, the Lions had 266 total yards.
CLOSE THIRD: DE Deion Barnes had six tackles and a sack for a 13-yard loss.
TURNING POINT: Despite being outplayed, Penn State was somehow still training only 14-6 at the start of the fourth quarter. But on the first play of the period, QB Christian Hackenberg was intercepted by LB Anthony Walker, who took it 49 yards for a score. Though only down 20-6 (NU missed the extra point), the Lion were done. Hackenberg's lost fumble after being sacked on the next play sent fans heading for the exits.
SOLID STRATEGY: Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald brought heavy pressure on Hackenberg throughout the game, and the PSU O-line was completely overmatched. It allowed the talented young QB to take a serious beating.
NUMBERS GAME: Penn State was held without a touchdown in a game at Beaver Stadium for the first time since the infamous 6-4 loss to Iowa in 2004.
BUSINESS AS USUAL: PSU tight end Jesse James had three catches for 32 yards.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: Jesse Della Valle popped a career-long 41-yard punt return for the Lions in the third quarter. It led to a Sam Ficken field goal.
WHAT'S UP WITH?
The special teams Keystone Kops routine in the first half. Penn State allowed a 42-yard punt return, had a short field goal blocked and had a punt deflected. And KR Grant Haley fielded a kickoff nine yards deep in the end zone and was decked at the 15.
Senior RB Bill Belton throwing a hissy fit when Hackenberg short-hopped him on a pass in the third quarter. A terrible reaction from someone who is supposed to be a verteran leader. Players getting after each other on the sideline is one thing. Showing someone up on the field is quite another.
PSU's O-line seeming clueless at times. On a desperate fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, guard Brian Gaia actually blocked his own man, tackle Andrew Nelson. Belton was thrown for a two-yard loss.
The Penn State defense's lousy tackling in the first quarter. This is becoming a troubling pattern for an otherwise strong unit.
The poor blocking by the PSU receivers. Yes, most of them are young. But until they start to block better, the outside screen game is not going to work.
Fitzgerald getting goofy with the lead. He called for a fake FG (which PSU snuffed out) up 14-0.
NU blowing several chances to put this away earlier. The Wildcats missed an early field goal, had the fake FG fail and threw an interception on a second-and-10 from the PSU 25 in the third quarter. Factor in two missed extra points, and the final margin in this game could have been much wider.
Ficken had another field goal blocked (his second of the season). The 32-yarder in the second quarter was low.
HIT SQUAD: On the fake field goal, Hull angled in and smacked holder Christian Salem.
HIDDEN HEROES: The medical staff that quickly tended to NU CB Matthew Harris after he was injured following a scary collision with Hackenberg in the third quarter. Harris was taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center as a precaution but returned to Beaver Stadium in time to join the team for the flight home. Great news.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: With two field goals, Ficken tied Massimo Manca for fifth on PSU's all-time list with 40.
DID YOU NOTICE?
There were no names on the PSU jerseys for the first time since the 2011 season. Sources say it was a one-game return to form, in honor of homecoming.
Starting LB Nyeem Wartman was in street clothes with his right arm in a sling. Sophomore Von Walker, the former running back and safety, started in his place. After the game, Franklin said Wartman would be back for PSU's next outing (at Michigan in two weeks), but it was difficult to tell if the coach was being serious.
After Walker struggled early, he was replaced by true freshman Jason Cabinda, who came out of a redshirt. Cabinda had eight tackles but had issues in coverage.
Gaia was back in the starting lineup after missing the UMass game with an undisclosed injury.
Freshman Dan Pasquariello of Australia got the start at punter in place of Chris Gulla. His first boot was a liner that NU's Miles Shuler returned 41 yards. Gulla handled the punting the rest of the way.
UNANSWERED QUESTION: Are there any buttons for Franklin and position coach Herb Hand to push when it comes to State's struggling offensive line?