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Lions, and tigers, and 'Cats! Oh My: Northwestern Delays the Inevitable But Falls to Penn State, 34-13

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Before this game, Pat Fitzgerald said he wanted the Wildcats to go out and play 60 minutes of quality football. Well, he got about 45. Going into the half, Northwestern led Penn State 13-10. Going into the fourth quarter, Northwestern and Penn State were tied, 13-13. And then the wheels came off, as has happened so many times this year. Except this time there would be no late game magic, no 25 point come back, no last second Stefan Demos field goal for the win. This time, when the game clock ticked down its final seconds on Saturday, there was just the end. The end to a game that started out so promising, to an epic upset in the making.

And yet... beyond the situation with Mike Kafka, which I'll get to below, I'm not that disappointed. Sure, I'm disappointed on a season level - this has not been the year I thought it was going to be. But, disappointed in this game? Not so much. I rated Northwestern's chances of stealing this one coming into this week at 10-15%. We had the momentum coming off the epic Indiana comeback, but Penn State had been rolling lately and their defense had overtaken Iowa in the stats. A win against them would be huge, but it would not come lightly, trap game or no. I knew this, and so seeing the result, I am only somewhat let down. My only sadness comes from what could have been.

Indeed... what could have been. This game started out well enough, with Northwestern holding their own against a #12 ranked Nittany Lions team. This time, the 'Cats didn't find themselves looking at a three score deficit before they got on the board. They held the Nittany Lions to a field goal on their first drive, and then answered with one of their own on a 34 yarder by Demos. The receivers were focused and sure handed while Kafka seemed to mystify the PSU defense with quick screen and slant passes. The game would remain tied at 3 through the end of the first quarter, and the 'Cats kept up the tit-for-tat in the next one. Kafka sprinted into the end zone on a 14 yard scramble for a touchdown to open it, and all of a sudden the Wildcats were up 10-3.

Then the middle of the second quarter came.

And Kafka got hurt.

The defense tried valiantly to keep Northwestern in this game, but in the next two and a half quarters with Dan Persa, the backup QB under center, the 'Cats would only pull out three more points on another Demos field goal. That field goal would have Northwestern up by 3 going into the half, but the offense remained stalled.

Kafka was on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, and the Wildcats just weren't the same...

Graham makes an argument that Minnesota should bench starting QB Adam Weber...

My take on the insanity that was Northwestern's comeback against Indiana in week 8...

Penn State answered the Northwestern field goal shortly into the third quarter, tying the score at 13. The NU defense led by a surprisingly lively Corey Wootton kept things close, but the time of possession difference wore them out. The NU defense was on the field for 11:02 in the third, compared to only 3:58 for the offense. They just got ground down.

Starting in the fourth quarter, the next three PSU possessions would result in touchdowns. Northwestern and Dan Persa simply had no answer. Persa, though he tried, just couldn't complete the type of screens and slants that Kafka and his laser arm had connected on earlier in the game. Northwestern hasn't really had a run game this season, so the loss of the passing game basically sealed things for the 'Cats. I give immense credit to receivers Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen - both made plays and took hits in an effort to keep the offense going, but it was too little, too late.

The question then, of course, is whether having Mike Kafka in the game would have changed the outcome. I can't answer that question with any certainty. Kafka was having success against PSU when he was playing, and I do think he would have connected on some of the throws and perhaps scrambled away from some of the sacks that plagued Persa. But... ultimately, it wasn't Persa who allowed three touchdowns in three subsequent possessions. The defense played well for 45 minutes but I don't know that having Kafka under center would have meant that the D would have lasted for the whole 60. Even if Kafka's presence accounted for two more touchdowns (which is being optimistic), if the defense didn't also play better, Northwestern still would have lost by seven. 

So where does this leave Northwestern? The 'Cats have three games left on the season. They need one win to be bowl eligible and seal a date in Detroit. Their next three opponents are Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Only one of those games looks to be ripe for a win, but it's a road game in Champaign and Illinois just steamrolled Michigan. If Kafka is healthy and returns to form, the 'Cats should be able to take that game or steal one from Iowa or Wisconsin. If Kafka isn't healthy....


Let's just not think about that, shall we? Until next week...