Penn State entered Saturday’s Big Ten home opener against Northwestern with plenty of momentum and excitement under first-year coach James Franklin.
The Nittany Lions were 4-0. They were entertaining thoughts of Big Ten contention following the NCAA’s decision to restore postseason eligibility after lifting a bowl ban connected to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
A 29-6 defeat at the Wildcats' hands completely exposed those hopes, forcing the Lions to refocus their season.
A 1-2 Northwestern team—whose only win in three games came against Western Illinois—walked into Beaver Stadium and totally dominated the Nittany Lions, raising major concerns as Penn State moves into the meat of its league schedule.
Penn State failed to score a touchdown at home for the first time in nearly 10 years. The last time it happened? Oct. 23, 2004, when Kirk Ferentz and Iowa handed Penn State a 6-4 defeat; the Lions scored a pair of safeties, one an intentional safety by Iowa running out of the back of the end zone on a punt. It was also Northwestern’s first win in State College since a 14-7 victory in 2004.
Two weeks ago, James Franklin and the Lions generated good feelings with a fourth-quarter rally at Rutgers for a 13-10 victory, building on a season-opening last-play win over Central Florida.
But once Northwestern built a 14-0 first-quarter lead, there was little hope of a rally.
Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg struggled with accuracy, completing 22 of 45 passes for 216 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
Big Ten Network cameras caught him arguing on the sidelines with senior tailback Bill Belton following an underthrown ball in the third quarter, per CBS Sports’ Tom Fornelli.
The Nittany Lions’ beleaguered offensive line labored to protect Hackenberg, and it also failed to open any holes for the Penn State running game.
Penn State gained just 50 yards on 25 running attempts, averaging 2.0 yards per carry. Belton was the leading rusher with 25 yards on eight carries.
Saturday, the Lions looked one-dimensional, which could prove to be a storyline for opposing defenses moving forward. If defenders don’t have to worry about the run game, it puts more pressure on Hackenberg, who now has four touchdowns against six interceptions on the season.
Hackenberg is a talented quarterback, but it remains unclear whether he can carry an offense by himself. He certainly didn’t do so against the Wildcats.
Penn State’s schedule doesn’t get any easier from here. Following an off week, the Lions travel to Michigan, which will be hungry for victories, and follow that with another off week and a visit from Ohio State.
With four wins as September ends, the Lions look like a postseason team. But hopes of Big Ten contention should be cast aside given the ugly Saturday that unfolded in Happy Valley.