Penn State once again had a game of ups and downs, this time against Northwestern on the road. James Franklin moved to 0-2 against the Wildcats as the Nittany Lions started flat, battled back but came up short in the 23-21 loss. Get a review of the highs and lows here.
The High Five
All Bark: Freshman running back Saquon Barkley was an incredible force in this game, seemingly willing the team to success at times with 120 yards and two scores on 25 carries. The downside is the staff can't just pile the game on his shoulders, like running the wildcat on the critical final third down deep in PSU's own territory. It was pretty clear the Wildcats were ready sitting on it. Overall, though, the future looks to be bright in the backfield for PSU. The key is to keep him healthy.
Comeback: Give credit to Penn State for fighting back and not packing it after falling behind 20-7. The squad could have tossed in the towel, but it clawed and could have come away with a win, if not for some missed opportunities. If the Lions avoided some key trip-ups (see lows), it could have been a different outcome.
Hold On: Penn State got all the momentum late as Northwestern started making mistakes, sparked by a roughing the kicker penalty. This helped PSU grab the lead late, but it ended up fumbling the momentum as the offense failed to convert late. But the players captialized, making some big plays heading into the final minutes.
Catching On: Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton came up big for Penn State at times, combining for 160 yards and a TD on 11 catches. Aside from this, it was a decent receiving performance with seven players catching balls.
Takedown: Despite having issues with the run game (see lows), the defensive line did manage to grab six sacks, including some key ones. An associated low was the sidelining of Carl Nassib late in the game due to injury. He would have been instrumental in helping to plug up the Wildcats' final drive.
The Low Five
Stalled Start: PSU's offense out the gate was awful. The passing game started out making one completion in the first 10 attempts. That put the Lions in a bit of a hole they had to overcome. Eventually the squad got back on track, but the slow start was somewhat surprising.
Primary Struggles: A wide open Austin Carr on the final Wildcat drive was symbolic of the shortcomings the secondary had in this game. Sure it kept backup QB Zack Oliver to a mere 11 completions on 24 attempts, but many of those were key on drives. Pile a few ill advised pass interference calls and general poor tackling, and the unit continues to have issues for this defense.
Broken Line: Surprising that the defensive line got manhandled at times, surrendering 186 yards on the ground to Justin Jackson. This group had some bright spots, but on the whole it was not a stellar day for the defensive front. The unit can't be pleased with Saturday's performance.
Third Down: Penn State continues to simply struggle on third down. Going s6x for 17 was a bit better, but the Lions continues to squander opportunities handed to them and force themsleves into third and long, often with unneeded penalties.
Unspecial: NU's kickoff touchdown return was a huge factor in this game. Couple that with some general poor punting on 11 attempts and special teams continue to be a weak point for this squad, which certainly is a concern this late in the season. Tyler Davis really struggled on kickoffs with Joe Julius out.
The Bottom Line
This was a game that would have been a nice resume-builder for Penn State's case for a bowl game boost and potential entry into the Top 25. Unfortunately, playing flat early and late didn't help the Nittany Lions in this one. The squad climbed out of the hole, but the offense has to realize its passing success largely comes from going downfield rather than swing and short passes, which often get snuffed out and blown up. The staff has to play to the strengths of Christian Hackenberg and the offense. Defensively, the unit had some bright spots, but was manhandled at times in the trenches and continues to have secondary struggles against subpar passers. The Lions are looking at a tough closeout to the season now, but the bye week gives the staff an opportunity to try to get some dimensions back on track, particulary special teams.