The congeniality between Penn State and Northwestern ended in the first quarter.
No, there weren’t any testy exchanges.
Penn State didn’t let its cordial, unblemished guests handle the ball. And this wasn’t a one-quarter trend.
The Nittany Lions rallied past the 24th-ranked Wildcats with a four-quarter game of keepaway that yielded a 39-28 victory before 95,769 fans Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
After trailing 28-17 entering the fourth quarter, Penn State outscored Northwestern 22-0 in the final 10 minutes. In short, it was Penn State’s best quarter, a gritty display of savvy football at the ideal time.
“Power of will,” defensive end Deion Barnes said.
Penn State ran 99 offensive plays, tying a school record established against West Virginia in 1966. Thirty-five of those snaps occurred in the fourth quarter.
The frantic pace started early, with the Nittany Lions attempting 22 and limiting the Wildcats to six plays in the first quarter.
The quarters included one major difference: Penn State scored just three points in the first.
The Nittany Lion had no trouble scoring in the fourth.
Allen Robinson’s 6-yard touchdown pass from Matt McGloin trimmed Northwestern’s lead to 28-25 with 9:49 left and McGloin’s 5-yard run gave Penn State a 32-28 advantage with 2:37 left. Michael Zordich secured the Nittany Lions’ fourth straight victory by scoring on a 3-yard run.
Penn State (4-2) now enters a bye week at 2-0 in Big Ten play.
“I feel like it was a must-win,” tight end Kyle Carter said. “Losing a game and going into a bye week, nobody would have been happy. We know that we had to win this game for everyone to feel like we can do what we have to do these next six games.”
The desperation theme started early in the week, with linebacker Glenn Carson calling the game a “must-win” scenario. Carson offered the bold words without solicitation.
Carson and his defensive partners competed with infectious zest, holding the Wildcats, who gained 704 yards last week at Indiana, to a season-low 247 yards.
Northwestern’s point total is deceiving because of Lion special teams gaffes.
Venric Mark’s 75-yard punt return with 50 seconds left in the third quarter expanded the Wildcats’ lead to 11 points, 28-17. In the second quarter, Jessa Della Valle muffed a punt at the Nittany Lion 17-yard line, and Mark scored Northwestern’s first points three plays later on a 5-yard run.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien concocted ways to remove special teams from the game, ordering his team to attempt six fourth-down plays. The Nittany Lions converted five.
“The key is really to convert on third down, and once we get past the 50, we are going for it on fourth down,” tight end Garry Gilliam said. “Coach O’Brien has no problem doing that. He has the utmost confidence in us to do so.”
The success allowed Penn State to prolong its ball-hogging ways. The Nittany Lions embarked on three second-half scoring drives of 80 yards or longer, thus a nearly 19-minute time-of-possession advantage.
Penn State clutched the ball for 39:17, a number that nearly reached 40 minutes because of Zach Zwinak’s second straight 100-yard game. The sophomore gained 121 yards on 28 carries.
“We couldn’t get anything going early, which led to our defense being on the field way too long,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team ran 93 plays a week ago against Indiana. “It’s a complete role reversal for our blueprint of success.”
McGloin helped the Nittany Lions control the fourth quarter, completing 13 of 15 passes. His final line: 35 of 51, 282 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
He also showed a penchant for running, scanning the field and scampering toward the right pylon to score the decisive touchdown.
McGloin, a fifth-year senior, is one player Fitzgerald doesn’t want to see again. He went 70 of 106 for 699 yards in three games against the Wildcats (5-1). More importantly, Penn State won all three times.
Considering the stakes and deficit, the second half might represent McGloin’s best 30 minutes as a Nittany Lion signal-caller.
“You guys can write about what it was or not,” he told reporters. “I thought I played well at times. I thought Zach ran his tail off, the line blocked, the defense had another great game. It was just another day.”
Just another day? Perhaps.
Victories are now coming in bunches for the Nittany Lions, who opened with losses to Ohio University and Virginia.
The schedule stiffens beginning Oct. 20 when the Nittany Lions visit Iowa. The second half also includes games against Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Indiana.
“We’re 4-2,” O’Brien said. “Who knows where it’s going to end up? But these guys are playing hard and it’s fun to see the smiles on their faces.”