As he broke down the highlight of his first career start, Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker couldn’t suppress a wide smile from stretching across his face.
It was the first play of the fourth quarter, and Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg fired a pass right to Walker, who returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to give his team a two-score lead.
Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian smiled at the thought of Walker’s dash to the end zone. “Pretty sweet,” Siemian said in the visiting team media room at Beaver Stadium.
Seated to Siemian’s right, Walker wore another grin as recounted the play — for the second time — that left the crowd of 102,910 stunned during Penn State’s 29-6 loss Saturday.
“The fact that the crowd just went silent was the best moment I think,” Walker said. “I think that was the best moment.”
There were plenty of moments for the Northwestern players and coaches to smile about after their dominant win. The Northwestern offense clicked as well as it has all season, meeting its goal in the running game and finding a rhythm in the passing game to result in three drives capped by touchdowns. And the Wildcats defense played as well as it has all season, dominating the line of scrimmage and frustrating Hackenberg to keep the Nittany Lions out of the end zone.
The win snapped Penn State’s six-game winning streak in the series against the Wildcats, whose last win came in 2004.
Northwestern (2-2, 1-0) had yet to put together a complete performance in a lackluster start to the year that included losses to California and Northern Illinois and a win over Western Illinois.
“We haven’t been very good on offense,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of a unit that entered Saturday ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring.
But the offense looked different as Siemian got off to a hot start against Penn State (4-1, 1-1).
The quarterback completed 11 of 15 passes for 150 yards in the first quarter to help the Wildcats take a 14-0 lead. Siemian punched in a pair of 1-yard runs for both scores.
He finished 21 of 37 for 258 yards and threw an interception in addition to rushing for three touchdowns. The Wildcats gashed the Penn State secondary with passes over the middle throughout the game, most often to superback Dan Vitale, who finished with seven catches for 113 yards.
“I don’t think we’ve found a rhythm like that all year,” Siemian said. “That’s kind of I think our identity is a rhythm offense and when we get the chains moving, we’re pretty effective. We’re still not a finished product but it was exciting to see us come along.”
Siemian’s efficiency in the passing game was paired with a rushing attack that met its goal against a Penn State defense that had allowed just 49.5 yards on the ground to opponents — the fewest in the country.
The Wildcats finished with 103 yards on 38 carries (2.7 per carry). Running back Justin Jackson led the way with 50 yards on 15 carries, while Warren Long picked up 49 yards on nine carries.
“For us to come in here against that defense and run for over 100 yards was something that we obviously set as a goal before the game,” Fitzgerald said. “If you would have told me we would get it, I would have had a big old smile on my face. Obviously I got a smile on my face.”
Fitzgerald was equally as pleased with the Northwestern defense.
The unit controlled play in the first half and put the game out of reach with two plays in the fourth quarter.
Penn State’s rushing attack reverted to its struggles prior to its blowout win over Massachusetts and finished with 50 yards on 25 carries against Northwestern. Bill Belton recorded the longest rush at 13 yards.
The defense was also up to the task of neutralizing Hackenberg and the Penn State passing game that worried Fitzgerald going into the game.
“Our plan offensively was to keep Hack on the sideline,” Fitzgerald said. “And he’s a great player — he’s not a good player — he’s a great player.”
Hackenberg scuffled through a 22-of-45 day, throwing for 216 yards and an interception. Northwestern also finished with four sacks.
Walker, the redshirt freshman linebacker making his first start, recorded a team-high eight tackles to go with his 49-yard interception return for a touchdown that pushed the Wildcats ahead 20-6 with 14:49 left in the fourth quarter.
Fitzgerald said Walker has played primarily on special teams before getting the start in place of the injured Collin Ellis.
“You got a senior captain that misses the game and have a redshirt freshman step up like that,” Fitzgerald said, “that’s big time.”
The first play after Walker’s touchdown, Northwestern defensive lineman Xavier Washington blasted Hackenberg in the backfield, forcing a fumble recovered by Wildcats teammate Connor Mahoney at the 15-yard line.
Northwestern tacked on a 23-yard field goal by Jack Mitchell four plays later to make it 23-6.
Players said the win was a result of an intense three weeks of practice, starting with the bye week after an 0-2 start. Fitzgerald started forcing players to do up-downs after mistakes, and they improved with each week. Vitale, the leading receiver, said he could a passion and focus in his teammates’ eyes Saturday that wasn’t there at the start of the year.
It turned around with the more demanding practices and led to the program’s first win over Penn State in a decade.
“We’ve been hard on ‘em because we need to be,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re an immature football team that’s maturing in front of our eyes. I’m really pleased and really happy with our seniors. This is a senior-type statement win.”