Northwestern (5-4, 2-3) fought hard for three quarters and even held a 13-10 halftime lead, but Penn State (8-1, 4-1) was just too much for the Wildcats as PSU scored 21 points in the final period to secure a 34-13 win in Evanston.
Despite losing a fumble on their second play from scrimmage, Northwestern's defense held the Nittany Lions in check on that drive by holding Penn State to a field goal. The Wildcats responded by putting together a 17-play, 65-yard drive to tie the game with a field goal of their own.
NU continued its offensive momentum in the second quarter as QB Mike Kafka punched it in on a seven-yard touchdown run to give the 'Cats a 10-3 lead, which marked just the second first-half TD that Penn State has given up this season.
Although PSU would answer with a TD of their own to tie the game, the Wildcats would take the lead just before halftime on a Stefan Demos 45-yard field goal that was set up by a 44-yard Stephen Simmons kickoff return.
Unfortunately, Kafka sustained a leg injury in the first half that forced him to sit out the rest of the game, although he remained in full pads on the sideline. Sophomore Dan Persa took over QB duties, and the flow of NU's offense completely changed (stopped).
The first half saw NU rack up 231 yards of total offense, with Kafka accounting for 170 of that (128 yards passing and 42 yards rushing). After the half, NU gained just 146 yards, with the vast majority of that (120 yards) coming late in the fourth after PSU had taken a three-touchdown lead.
For Penn State, all it took was one three consecutive offensive plays from scrimmage to take a big lead in the fourth quarter.
First, it was a two-yard scoring run after a long sustained drive. Then, after an NU three-and-out, PSU QB Daryll Clark found dangerous WR Derek Moye open deep and hit him for a 53 yard touchdown.
After another fruitless Northwestern drive and punt, Clark faked a quick pass to the flat (which had worked multiple times on the evening) then handed off to RB Evan Royster who found a big hole and took the ball 69 yards for a score to give Penn State an insurmountable 21-point lead.
Although Kafka couldn't have corrected the defensive gaffes that led to the game-sealing PSU scores, his absence definitely disrupted the Northwestern offensive flow.
Despite facing a stout defense, the 'Cats were moving the ball very well with Kafka at the helm, and it's tough to think about the could-have-been situation if he was at full health.
Despite the Kafka injury and a couple glaring defensive errors, Northwestern put together 45 solid minutes of football against one of the nation's best teams, and has the tools to put together an upset bid next week in Iowa City.
Player of the Game:
PSU QB Daryll Clark (22-of-31 for 274 yards and 1 TD passing, 6 rushes for 16 yards and 1 TD) Clark had a rather pedestrian game until he helped blow the game wide open with a 53-yard bomb to Moye in the fourth quarter.
His accurate throws and avoidance of any major errors helped Penn State earn a big road win despite a rough first half.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
QB Mike Kafka (14-of-18 for 128 yards passing, 8 rushes for 42 yards and 1 TD) Kafka had the offense clicking and proved to be a threat both with his arm and his feet until he went down with a leg injury. The offense definitely looked deflated after he came out of the game.
WR Zeke Markshausen (9 catches for 60 yards) He's not flashy, but all this guy does is catch the football, padding his already large number of receptions on the year.
What to Work on:
Preventing Explosion Plays: Northwestern was very much in the football game even after allowing PSU to take a 20-13 fourth quarter lead. But on the next two plays from scrimmage, the 'Cats allowed Penn State to essentially end the game with a pass and a run that totaled 122 yards.
Utilizing Persa: When Dan Persa came in to relieve Kafka, he utilized his speed (he had 14 runs for 42 net yards, although that includes the four times he was sacked), but rarely provided a deep throwing threat (his longest pass was 20 yards). PSU basically teed off on him in terms of the pass rush, forcing him to run for his life on most downs.
Complete Game: NU got close to its first "complete game" of the year, taking a tied ballgame into the final quarter of play, but couldn't finish the job.
This game showed that if the 'Cats can play well in all three phases the whole way, they can compete with anyone. Hopefully, NU can play well in all 60 minutes in its biggest test of the year next week at Iowa.
Attendance: Not to harp on it too much, but attendance for the biggest game of the year at Ryan Field was 30,546 (65 percent of capacity), not as good as it could be for a late afternoon start against a highly ranked opponent.
Made or Blocked: P/K Stefan Demos is now 13-of-15 on FG attempts for the year, with both of his misses coming on blocked kicks.
Kafka: The NU starting QB has accounted for 70% of the 'Cats' offensive yards this season (2,443) and 15 TDs.
Big Ten Bowl Positioning: Northwestern still needs another win to reach bowl eligibility (and two to secure a berth), but they're in the mix with two other teams at five wins (the top four teams in the conference have already achieved at least six wins for bowl eligibility).
Special Teams Drops: There were four drops on special teams: three on kickoff returns and one by NU's punter. Two actually turned into great plays for the 'Cats, with Demos picking up a dropped snap that he flicked ahead to Mark Woodsum, who gained a first down and Simmons returning a dropped kickoff that he picked back up for 44 yards.
The Wildcats put together a solid three quarters but just couldn't hold up in the end, especially after losing its top offensive weapon, Mike Kafka, to an injury in the second quarter.
Now Northwestern will pick up the pieces and try to put together an upset bid next week as they travel to Iowa City to face another highly ranked opponent and try to earn bowl eligibility.