Sunday, October 23, 2011

Penn State at Northwestern: It's Time to Believe!

It would have been an okay trip without the win because the game was in Chicago and Chicago is always fun, a favorite big city that we could visit often and never tire of its offerings.   

But it became a fantastic trip with a win over a team that is better than its record, one that we were very worried about.  That gave Penn State all it could handle last year in Joe Paterno's 400th win.  This year it was tying the late Eddie Robinson of Grambling State for the all-time Division I-A lead in wins that was at stake.

Last night's game against the Northwestern Wildcats was reminiscent of yet another adventurous trip to Evanston, at the beginning of the 2005 Big Ten season, when for the first time in a long time I felt that a Penn State team had a chance to be something really special.

The circumstances were quite different then than they are now.  Including the fact that we had had two losing seasons in a row before 2005, and are further along in the season than we were then.

But in terms of it being a special year, it's beginning to feel that way with this team. 

There are several signs that the Nittany Lions might be a contender rather than a pretender in this 2011 football season, none the least of which is the fact that the team simply keeps finding a way to win in the face of adversity.  And adversity is what the Wildcats gave the Lions, throughout the game.

Imagine our panic when the game started with a Chaz Powell kickoff return for 26 yards that went awry - a fumble - eliminating Penn State's first possession and giving the Wildcats favorable field position and seven easy points in the first few minutes of the game.

My husband Terry and I looked at each other with dismay, thinking that with our offense being as shaky as it has been so far this season, Penn State couldn't afford to make a critical mistake like that against an explosive offensive team like Northwestern's.

But after Northwestern scored and kicked off, Chaz Powell was at it again, redeeming himself with a 54-yard kickoff return, this time holding on to the ball and giving the Nittany Lions a short field and a chance to return the favor.

With the game tied at 7-7 still early in the first quarter, we breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to watch an offensive show on both sides of the ball that exceeded our expectations.

Thank goodness.

Basically we were very worried about Northwestern's double-threat quarterbacking.  We knew that Dan Persa was good, actually excellent.   We had caught enough of backup quarterback Kain Colter's running against Iowa on TV the week before to know that he was hard to deal with.

With both of them healthy, we hoped that our defense would be able to somehow upset their rhythm.  We felt that the defense needed to contain them and keep them off the field. 

Basically, given past games, we weren't expecting our offense to score much, and we felt that if Northwestern scored more than 20 points, we were in serious trouble.

But our defense wasn't that able to contain Northwestern in the first half.  What saved us, miraculously enough, was an offense that was super-productive under the leadership of starting quarterback Matt McGloin.

Say what?  Matt McGloin started?  I suspect that most Penn State fans breathed a sigh of relief that he had finally separated himself from Rob Bolden.

Attitudes toward McGloin had really changed in the last few weeks, and people had been wondering why Bolden was starting.  Try as he might, Joe Paterno could not convince people that they were playing two quarterbacks because both were good and deserved time. 

In any case, there we were, at Northwestern, with Matt McGloin finally starting and at the helm, hoping he wouldn't make any mistakes trying too hard to make something happen, his great weakness.  We hoped he would make good judgment calls and not turnover the ball.  He didn't.

The scoring in the first half went like this:
Northwestern 7, Penn State 0
Northwestern 7, Penn State 7
Penn State 14, Northwestern 7
Penn State 14, Northwestern 14 (end of first quarter)
Penn State 17, Northwestern 14
Northwestern 21, Penn State 17
Northwestern 21, Penn State 20
Northwestern 24, Penn State 20
Penn State 27, Northwestern 24 (end of second quarter)

Basically, Penn State stayed even with Northwestern in the first half.  A shoot-out. McGloin did well.

Would Penn State win a shoot out?  We were still worried.  But the offense was holding their own, and that was a good sign.  Plus, it was a significant number of points scored against a Big Ten Team.

Half-time at Northwestern's homecoming.  A somewhat anemic (pardon the criticism) alumni band called the "NUMALUMS" - really??? - joined the Northwestern marching band for a Beatles review.  It was an okay performance. 

However, when it comes to Big Ten bands, their claim that they are the best marching band in the land falls a bit short.  They will never knock out TBDBITL Ohio State, or even Penn State's Blue Band.  Good, but not great.

But I digress.  Actually, our experience at Ryan Field this time was pretty good.  There was a boisterous Penn State crowd interspersed with a few passionate Wildcat fans who found themselves in the wrong section.

We had decent seats with a good view of the game, something that in the past had not always been the case.  The Northwestern folks were pretty welcoming and friendly, and it was one of the best crowds we had seen since the 1994-1995 time period when the Wildcats were Big Ten champions.

We took the El (for novices, that's the elevated subway train) to the game from downtown Chicago, which was quite effective.  The weather was about the mildest we've ever seen at Northwestern, so we were comfortable.

And for the first time ever, the Big Ten flags that lined up above the stands across from us were perfectly still.  No swirling wind typical of Ryan Field!  Amazing.

In the second half, Northwestern had the ball first because they won the toss.  Starting at the NU 16 yard line, the Wildcats made mincemeat out of the Lions' defense, driving to the PSU 22 yard line.

It was a dismal drive, and we weren't happy at all that Northwestern could march down the field and so easily make progress against our defense.  It wasn't looking too good to us at that point.

Then, in a play that I didn't see because I'm a bit slow getting up off my feet, Gerald Hodges intercepted Dan Persa's pass on PSU's 18 yard line and ran it back 63 yards to NU's 19 yard line.

This was the key play of the game.  It thwarted Northwestern's offense and denied them a tying score.  Then, on the very next play, Penn State's Silas Redd carried the ball for 19 yards and a touchdown!

The score was 34-24, and that would be the end of the scoring.  One touchdown in the second half of the game, scored with 26:39 minutes remaining in the game!

Northwestern never recovered from that interception.  Penn State's defense stepped up and prevented Northwestern from getting into scoring position.

Amazing.   There were six touchdowns scored in the first half.
For the rest of the game, I simply started cheering for the clock.  "Go, clock, go!!!" I would yell at various times.

The rushing game, under the talent of Silas Redd and Stephon Green, was very productive and effective in running down the clock. 

Our defense turned out to have made some adjustments in the second half, and basically prevented Northwestern from scoring.   Great job, guys!

Kudos to Matt McGloin for a solid offensive effort.  Congratulations to Silas Redd for achieving 164 yards of offense.  Thank you to Gerald Hodges for leading the defense in tackles with eight solo tackles and six assists.  Thank you to Devon Smith for achieving 110 yards of offense.

As for the future?  Well, it's the old adage of taking one game at a time.

I'm a believer in this team.  I believe that they can go far.  There are four reasons for this belief:

1. The Penn State team has had a friendly schedule (with the exception of Alabama) at the beginning of the season that has given them the luxury of improving over time.

2.  With so many close games, the coaches have been able to watch and address performance issues with team members that would probably not have been noticed under "blow-out" scoring conditions.

3. The balance of performance within the offense (189 yards rushing and 192 yards passing) is impressive.  The teams within the team - offense, defense, and special teams - are starting to perform at a higher level.

4.  There doesn't seem to be a Big Ten team left on our roster that's unbeatable.  With the right focus and game plan, Penn State could run the table and beat them all.

Finally, congratulations to Coach Joe Paterno for his 408th win.  What a milestone victory for him and for all the athletics staff who have assisted in making Penn State football an exceptional experience. 


  1. Carolyn . . .

    I'm glad I'm not the only one that is starting to feel that "something special" about this team. I was really down on this team a month ago, but the kids are starting to play with some enthusiasm and things look like they are coming together. They aren't blowing anyone out, but they don't need to as long as they keep on winning. And you are right about the Big Ten--every team looks mortal right now.

  2. Good! Glad I'm not alone either...on to the Illini, thankfully at home!

  3. Yep. We owe Ron Zook and his team a little payback for spoiling last year's homecoming. One game at a time. Go State!

  4. Was screaming at the defense in the first half--but they got their act together and had a great second half. Hodges was incredible the whole game. Offense looked fantastic and Redd continues to dominate.

    Very impressed with the tough road victory and there is no reason we shouldn't be 8-1 going into the bye week..Let's keep rollin!!

  5. Nathan I know you were worried about Northwestern so you must have had a lot of fun watching this game...a nail-biter at times in the second half when Northwestern threatened but the defense held. Yeah, bring on the Illini for a bit of revenge for last year!