Christian Hackenberg unbuckled his chinstrap and jogged off the field as Bill Belton angrily spiked the football a few yards away.
Hackenberg had just one-hopped a pass to his wide-open tailback and Belton wasn’t happy. Belton caught up to his quarterback on the sideline and the two had a few words, determined to get on the same page. Desperate to get any offensive momentum going.
But they couldn’t and wouldn’t and the Northwestern Wildcats took advantage of Penn State’s offensive ineptitude. The Wildcats (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) overpowered a listless Penn State squad and handed the Nittany Lions a 29-6 homecoming loss at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Wildcat quarterback Trevor Siemian scored three touchdowns — all on one-yard quarterback sneaks — and Penn State was held without a touchdown at home for the first time since 2004 when Penn State suffered an infamous 6-4 loss to Iowa — also on homecoming. Jack Mitchell added a 23-yard field goal and Anthony Walker picked off Hackenberg and returned the interception 49 yards for a touchdown to start the fourth quarter.
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Sam Ficken scored all of Penn State’s points. He hit a 42-yard field goal in the second quarter and added a 36-yarder in the third.
“We could’ve played a lot better,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We made a lot of mistakes. We’re having the same issue. It keeps popping up all year long which is being able to consistently be able to run the ball and being able to protect the quarterback.”
Again, Penn State could do neither against a Northwestern squad that got an early start.
The Nittany Lions managed just 50 rushing yards on 25 carries compared to 46 pass attempts. Hackenberg was besieged by Northwestern defenders on the majority of his 57 dropbacks. He was sacked four times and forced to tuck the ball and scramble on seven more plays.
Forced to play a one-dimensional brand of offense, Penn State was predictable all afternoon for an aggressive Northwestern defense that knocked down six passes and made nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage. After opening the second half trailing 14-3, Penn State began with a designed quarterback run from Hackenberg. It was the last called running play until there were less than four minutes left in the third quarter. During that time, Penn State coaches called 16-straight passing plays.
One of them was the short throw to Belton, who had room to run down the sideline.
After the game, a solemn Hackenberg said he loved having Belton as a teammate and their intense discussion was “part of the game” when things aren’t going well.
“I think that’s exactly what it was,” Hackenberg said. “Bill and I expect the best out of each other and that’s why I love having him as a teammate. And I think that’s just one of those things. We’re fine. There’s absolutely nothing held against that.
“That shows the type of kids we have here. We hold each other to a higher standard, each and every guy.”
But those standards weren’t met as soon as the game started.
The Wildcats drove the field with their no-huddle offense and ended in Penn State territory when Mitchell missed a 44-yard field goal. After forcing a three-and-out, Northwestern got a 42-yard punt return Miles Shuler to set the Siemian-led offense up in Penn State territory. Northwestern needed just four plays to go 31 yards for the game’s first points. They came when Siemian lunged into the end zone from a yard out.
The Wildcats got good field position again and started at their own 40 following another three-play Penn State possession and a Chris Gulla punt. Siemian led another quick drive highlighted by a 14-yard throw to Shuler and an 18-yard completion to Tony Jones that set Northwestern up at Penn State’s three-yard line. Penn State’s defense stiffened up and turned away Treyvon Green from the goal line twice before Siemian fell in on third-and-goal.
Suddenly, Penn State, which hadn’t given up a first quarter score all season, was down 14-0 with 3:59 to play.
As Penn State’s offense continued to sputter, Northwestern’s special teams units got tricky.
The Wildcats tried a fake field goal from inside Penn State’s 10 but linebacker Mike Hull sniffed the play out and drilled holder Christian Salem, who tried to sneak in around the edge. It prevented the Wildcats from taking a three-possession lead in the first quarter.
“They were the better team today, well-coached, played hard, didn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Franklin said.
The win snapped Northwestern’s six-game losing streak to Penn State and was the Wildcats’ first win in the series since 2004. They inched closer to the win when Hackenberg misfired on Penn State’s first play to start the fourth quarter.
Looking for DaeSean Hamilton on an intermediate route, Hackenberg fired to the left and instead hit Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker in his numbers in Penn State’s territory. Walker had only Hackenberg to beat and outran him to the end zone to put the Wildcats up 20-6.
Northwestern’s defense caused another turnover on its very next play.
Hackenberg dropped to throw on first down and was demolished by defensive lineman Xavier Washington, who was unblocked. Hackenberg lost the football and Wildcat lineman Connor Mahoney recovered. Mitchell added a 23-yard field goal four plays later to push Northwestern’s lead to 23-6.
Penn State was forced to go for two more fourth-down conversions and failed both times. Belton was tackled behind the line of scrimmage on Penn State’s next drive and Hackenberg threw incomplete to DaeSean Hamilton with less than six minutes to play.
“You’re going to have to be able to establish a running game and protect the quarterback,” Franklin said. “We’ve been able to get by with this, with playing smart, playing hard, playing with tremendous effort and perservering. Let’s be honest, we haven’t played pretty really all year long and it caught up to us today against a good, solid, well-coached, hard-nosed team.”
The Nittany Lions are off next week before traveling to Michigan.