UNIVERSITY PARK — Momentum can build so slightly that sometimes you don’t even notice when the shift starts.
In the final minute of Saturday’s first half, Penn State, down 21-0 to Northwestern, faced a third-and-3 from its own 32-yard line. The Nittany Lions called what offensive coordinator Galen Hall would later refer to as a “tweener play” — a draw to running back Stephfon Green that would either go for a decent gain or, if it failed to pick up the first down, allow Penn State to kill the rest of the clock.
The play picked up 21 yards. The drive resulted in a touchdown. The touchdown led to four more scores and Penn State had the 400th win of head coach Joe Paterno’s career, a 35-21 triumph before an announced 104,147 in Beaver Stadium.
The Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) had completed their largest home comeback in 45 seasons under Paterno (it also tied the 21- point comeback at Illinois in 1994) by the middle of the third quarter. From the final minute of the first half to the 11:38 mark of the fourth quarter, Penn State’s offense racked up 343 yards and 35 points, holding the Wildcats (6-3, 2-3) to 32 yards and no points over the same period.
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The huge surge after a lethargic start mirrored Penn State’s season. After losing three of five games— all by 20 points or more — to drop to 3-3, the Nittany Lions have won three straight games to become bowl eligible and are playing with a confidence and resilience they didn’t have for the first six weeks of the season.
“I had hoped that somewhere down the line they would get into a tough game and stick in there,” Paterno said. “To see them come back the way they came back, really, and it sounds phony, but was more important to me than (the 400th win).”
Early on, it didn’t appear as if Paterno would be able to celebrate another milestone on a cold, cloudy afternoon. Behind fearless and elusive quarterback Dan Persa, Northwestern put together three long scoring drives in the first half and forced turnovers — one on downs, the other on a Rob Bolden fumble — on Penn State’s first two possessions as a late-arriving home crowd looked on in chilly silence.
An incredible one-handed, toe-dragging catch by tight end Drake Dunsmore in the back of the end zone gave the Wildcats a 21-0 lead with 56 seconds left in the half.
At that point, the Nittany Lions had 133 yards on 33 plays and hadn’t advanced the ball deeper than Northwestern’s 33-yard line. Collin Wagner had left a 51-yard field-goal attempt short on the previous possession. Penn State was having some success moving the ball — mostly with gives to running backs Evan Royster (134 yards on 25 carries) and Silas Redd (11-131) or short passes to fullback Joe Suhey (six catches, 67 yards), but had nothing to show for it.
Then came the draw to Green, his only carry of the day.
“We thought it had a chance to get a first down,” Hall said. “But it was a safer play than going back and getting a pass rush or a blitz to hit us. It worked for us. Matt hit a pass, the momentum got going, we got it in and they had a hard time after that.”
Matt McGloin found Graham Zug for a 20-yard pickup, then found Suhey, who made a nice lunging catch for 20 more yards to the Northwestern 13-yard line. McGloin spiked the ball to stop the clock with seven seconds left, then found Brett Brackett in the back of the end zone, where the 6-foot-6 receiver dragged his left foot for a score with three seconds to play.
“Being down 21-7 is a lot different than being down 21-0,” Penn State fullback Mike Zordich said.
Penn State carried the momentum into its first drive of the second half, marching 84 yards in 14 plays and pulling to within seven points when McGloin hooked up with reserve tight end Nate Cadogan for a 3-yard touchdown six minutes into the third quarter.
“We started feeling a little better,” said McGloin, who threw for 225 yards and four touchdowns after coming off the bench late in the first quarter. “The crowd started to get into it, the sideline started to get into it and we were able to get going.”
Northwestern’s Stephen Simmons, perhaps a bit rattled by the suddenly noisy crowd, hesitated when deciding whether to take a knee on the ensuing kickoff and had to bring the ball out of the end zone. He was tackled at the 11-yard line, and Penn State’s defense forced a quick three-and-out.
McGloin found wide receiver Derek Moye (five catches, 85 yards) for an 18-yard gain, then hit him again on a perfectly thrown deep ball up the right sideline for a 36-yard score. Wagner’s extra point knotted the score at 21-21 with 5:43 left in the third. A Penn State offense that could get nothing done in the first half was suddenly scoring at will.
The Penn State defense, fueled by a monster second half from linebacker Michael Mauti (11 tackles, three for losses), forced another three-and-out, and a 13-yard punt from Northwestern’s Brandon Williams gave the Nittany Lions the ball at Northwestern’s 41-yard line. A key third-down pass interference penalty and Royster’s 17-yard run got the ball to the 4-yard line, where Redd made a nifty jump cut and cruised in to make it 28-21 with 1:31 left in the third.
The Nittany Lions tacked on an insurance score when McGloin and Royster hooked up for a 13-yard touchdown reception a little more than three minutes into the fourth quarter, and Northwestern missed a great chance to get closer when running back Mike Trumpy dropped a fourth-down pass from a scrambling Persa in the end zone with just over eight minutes remaining.
Persa was 16 of 25 for 201 yards and ran for 109 more yards on 25 carries, but just 118 of those yards came in the second half.
Penn State, which visits No. 8 Ohio State (8-1, 4-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, honored Paterno with a crystal football and a video montage as his players and the majority of the fans looked on. The 83-year-old coach smiled throughout the ceremony and most of his postgame news conference. His team’s comeback appeared to have him excited about the rest of the season.
“It was very moving to me,” Paterno said, adding in the next breath: “You know, we have three more games.”