EVANSTON, Ill. — There was a certain irony to the end of Penn State’s 23-21 loss to Northwestern here Saturday.
Not that the outcome definitely hinged on it, but at the very least, the Nittany Lions were hurt by the coaching staff’s failure to call a timeout in a timely manner in the final minute.
On a first-down play trailing 21-20, Wildcat RB Justin Jackson rushed for two yards to the PSU 22-yard line. There were about 50 seconds remaining and the Lions had all three timeouts remaining.
But the clock ticked. And ticked. And ticked. Until finally, with 22 seconds left, PSU coach James Franklin called timeout. The Lions lost 28 seconds.
So even after timeouts following NU’s next two plays — both runs — State only had nine seconds left following Jack Mitchell’s go-ahead 35-yard field goal.
And that obviously was not nearly enough time to mount any sort of desperation drive.
Would 37 seconds (the 28 lost, plus the nine that were left after the field goal) have been enough for QB Christian Hackenberg to try to pull it out? The odds would have been against it, especially considering the disaster that is PSU’s place-kicking situation.
But the Lions at least would have had a chance.
“I should have burned a timeout right away,” Franklin said after the game. “That was my missed opportunity. I didn’t make the play there”
The irony? For much of this season, including the first half Saturday, the PSU staff has taken heat (and deservedly so) for using its timeouts in goofy situations. Just last week, in a blowout of Illinois, they spent two TOs consecutively before an Illini punt.
Franklin’s “missed opportunity” Saturday was indicative of the team’s play overall. It showed grit and heart after rallying from a 20-7 halftime deficit to take the 21-20 lead.
But missed chances in every phase of the game proved too difficult to overcome.
“We weren’t able to play winning football at the end of the game when we needed to,” Franklin said.
Here is how we saw things playing out.
MAN OF THE HOUR: PSU rookie RB Saquon Barkley overcame a tough start to pound out 120 yards and two TDs on 25 carries. We can only imagine where this offense would be without him.
CLOSE SECOND: DT Austin Johnson had 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
CLOSE THIRD: WR Chris Godwin caught eight passes for 104 yards.
TURNING POINT: With PSU up 21-20 late, NU QB Zack Oliver threw a pass over the middle intended for Dan Vitale. Lion DB Grant Haley had the interception in his hands, but dropped it. The could-have-been pick would have all but sealed the win. On the next play — a third and 15 — Oliver hit Austin Carr for 23 yards to the PSU 36 to move closer to field goal range.
SOLID STRATEGY: Penn State used the wildcat — with Barkley taking snaps — to score twice. The Lions may have gone to it once too often, though, as he was stopped on a key third-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
NUMBERS GAME: The Penn State defense gave up 396 yards to an offense that spent most of the game being operated by its backup QB (Oliver).
BUSINESS AS USUAL: DE Carl Nassib had another sack, giving him 15.5 on the season to set a PSU record. But he missed the end of the game with what appeared to be a shoulder injury.
WHAT'S UP WITH?
• The Lions dialing up a LONG across-the-field pass from Hackenberg to Godwin up 21-20 on third-and-13 in the fourth quarter. PSU was at the NU 37. CB Nick VanHoose intercepted and the Lions were fortunate he fell down after going high for the catch or it would have been a pick six.
• The PSU defense being gashed by Jackson to the tune of 163 yards and 8.1 yards per carry. Lots of bad angles and sloppy attempts at tackles.
• State’s pathetic kickoff situation. Wow. The Lions gave up a 96-yarder for a return. Then kicker Tyler Davis began inadvertently (according to Franklin) squibbing kicks.
• TE Mike Gesicki dropping even more passes.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: WR Geno Lewis threw a perfect strike to DaeSean Hamilton on an end-around pass. It went for a third-quarter score and seemed to pump life into the Lions.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• RT Andrew Nelson made the trip but did not start the game (Brendan Mahon did) and only played one snap that we saw.
• K Joey Julius did not make the trip. Franklin said he was “not available” but added it was not a disciplinary issue.
• S Jordan Lucas was knocked from the game with what appeared to be a shoulder injury. He was replaced by Malik Golden.
UNANSWERED QUESTION: Will the upcoming bye week allow the Lions to recharge for a tough final two-game stretch (Michigan at home and Michigan State on the road)?