Penn State Football: 10 Things We Learned from PSU's Win over Northwestern

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2012

Penn State Football: 10 Things We Learned from PSU's Win over Northwestern

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    The Penn State Nittany Lions put together a great second half to come from behind and knock off the previously unbeaten Northwestern Wildcats, 39-28.

    What does this win mean for Penn State, now 4-2 and 2-0 in the Big Ten?

    The season's looking a lot brighter today than it did a few weeks ago, that's for sure. There are many things to take away from today's game, and we'll sort through them, one-by-one, in our list of 10 things we learned from Penn State's win over Northwestern.

Matt McGloin Has Improved

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    Matt McGloin was once a quarterback who found himself benched at Penn State.

    With his collegiate career in doubt, McGloin stuck it out at Penn State through its darkest hours, and is now being justly rewarded.

    McGloin went 35-of-51 for 282 yards and two touchdowns, and scored a crucial third touchdown in the game's waning minutes to give Penn State the lead for good.

    For the season, McGloin has now accounted for 17 total touchdowns and is clearly the offensive leader for this Penn State team.

    Also worth noting is the fact that McGloin seems to have improved his throwing technique this season, cutting down on those badly off-target passes. His patience in the pocket has also improved, and the result is a much more efficient Penn State offense.

Penn State Defense Is Underrated

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    Through the first five weeks of the season, the one thing that helped Northwestern to a 5-0 record was the fact that the Wildcats had yet to see a team whose defense could keep up with their up-tempo pace.

    Penn State, while at times flustered, recovered nicely in the second half. The coaching staff and players made some much-needed adjustments on the fly, and when it really counted—in the fourth quarter—the Penn State defense was suffocating.

    The slightest momentum for Penn State resulted in a defense that swarmed to the football, kept the Northwestern quarterback tandem off-balance, and never allowed any sense of rhythm—something the Wildcats' offense must have to be successful.

    Clearly, the Penn State defense stepped up its game this week and answered the challenge presented by Northwestern.

Zach Zwinak Can Be a Featured Back in the Big Ten

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    Zach Zwinak had 28 carries today, and while the 4.3 yards-per-touch isn't what anyone would call amazing, his 121 yards on the ground are more than enough to attract some attention in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.

    In a conference known for its big-time, bruising runners, Zwinak fits the mold perfectly. At 6'1" and 232 pounds, he has both the speed and strength to be a success in this league, which holds its running backs in such high regard.

    With Zwinak proving that he can be a workhorse, we may start to see Penn State get away from the throw-first mentality all the time.

    And that's not a bad thing.

The Nittany Lions Have Tons of Quality Receiving Targets

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    While it's easy to look at Matt McGloin's numbers and say wow, it's interesting to note that only three Penn State receivers had five or more receptions on a day when McGloin threw over 50 passes.

    There were 10 Penn State players with at least one catch on the day, led by Allen Robinson (9 receptions, 85 yards, 2 TDs).

    With so many viable targets on the field, it's no wonder the Northwestern defense had trouble covering them all.

    This is easily one of the great strengths of the Penn State offense, and as the season progresses, the Nittany Lions may develop into one of the conference's top passing teams.

    They certainly have the players to do it.

Alex Butterworth May Be the Least Appreciated Player on the Team

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    The Penn State kicking game gets a lot of flak, and rightfully so. You can't have a kicker go three-for-nine on field goal attempts through six games and not hear about it.

    But there's one aspect to the Penn State kicking game that is doing quite well, thank you very much.

    Punter Alex Butterworth played an important role in his team's victory against Northwestern, punting five times for 184 yards—three of which ended up inside the 20, with a couple inside the 10.

    Putting a high-octane Northwestern offense that far back early in the game clearly disrupted the Wildcats' mojo, and they never really recovered. Were it not for Butterworth, it's likely Penn State wouldn't have held Northwestern to 28 points on the day, and the outcome could have been a lot different.

    Hey, maybe Bill O'Brien should let him try a few field goals.

Kicking Game Will Eventually Hurt Penn State

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    Speaking of the kicking game, there's clearly a major problem with place kicker Sam Ficken.

    Sure, he was 1-for-1 today (from 21 yards), and 4-for-4 on extra points, but when it comes down to it, the reason Penn State attempted six fourth-down conversions today is because the coaching staff has absolutely no faith in Ficken's ability to put it between the uprights when it really matters.

    A kicking game (or lack thereof) won't necessarily decide games early in a season. But as the Nittany Lions head into the heart of their Big Ten schedule, three points—or not having to rely on fourth-down conversion after fourth-down conversion—can be the difference between winning and losing.

This Is Old School Big Ten Football at Its Best

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    The Big Ten has been much maligned for it's supposed “old man” style of playing football.

    Penn State is the exception to that “rule.”

    The Nittany Lions proved today that a team can combine a good, power run game—like the Big Ten teams of yore—with a speedy passing attack to churn out a gritty win at home against an unbeaten opponent.

    Is there anything that exemplified Big Ten football today more than that?

    Penn State should be proud of how it represented the “down and out” Big Ten today.

Bill O'Brien Is a Big Ten Coach of the Year Candidate

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    All of the struggles Penn State has had coming into this season have been beaten to death, and then some.

    We all know what happened, and we all know the consequences the program is dealing with in the best way it can.

    When Penn State started 0-2, most of us probably said to ourselves, “Well, this is just how it's going to be in Happy Valley for a while.”

    Bill O'Brien was having none of that.

    In just four weeks, he has turned his team from a punchline into an opponent capable of beating any team in the Big Ten on any given Saturday. The Nittany Lions aren't going to be the punching bag we all expected, and there's really only one man you can thank for that: Bill O'Brien.

    His relentless belief in his team is starting to pay off on the field. With a few more wins, there's absolutely no reason O'Brien's name shouldn't be floated for Big Ten coach of the year.

Penn State Fans Should Still Believe

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    One thing we did notice today was the crowd at Beaver Stadium looked a little sparse.

    It wasn't all that long ago that a ticket to a Penn State football game was a commodity. Today, there were literally thousands of empty seats.

    What's worse, it was homecoming. Against a ranked opponent, too.

    If there was one game of the season when Beaver Stadium should have been bursting at the seams, it had to have been today.

    We know what you're going through, and we know it can't be easy. But leaving so many seats empty on homecoming Saturday in Happy Valley only shows the rest of the nation that Nittany Lions Nation is still reeling from the gut-punch it took last fall, and there are still many that don't want to come back.

The 2012 Season Is Not a Lost Cause

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    There will be no bowl game. There will be no Big Ten Championship Game. There will be no lauded praises.

    But that doesn't mean the season is a lost cause.

    The entire country was ready to give up on Penn State after its 0-2 start. The fanbase looked dejected. The team seemed to be fracturing. Every sign pointed to SMU, part two.

    But something happened between Week 2 and now, and Penn State is actually playing some darn good football.

    After winning their last four games, the Nittany Lions are starting to believe in themselves. Now, the fans need to start believing, too. It's not always about the destination. Sometimes the journey can be the important part.

    The players out on the field today will never see a bowl game. Yet they played for the honor of Penn State, and for the pride of Mount Nittany.

    And playing for pride is never a lost cause.