Five Things We Learned: Penn State vs. Northwestern
Sitting on the outskirts of the top 25, the Penn State Nittany Lions traveled to Evanston, Illinois to duel with the No. 21 Northwestern Wildcats. Both teams got off to slow starts, where it was not until the second quarter that the Wildcats drew first blood. They got off to a commanding 20-7 lead heading into the half thanks to a kick return for a touchdown, but the Lions answered back in the fourth to take a one point lead with 12 minutes remaining. After a few missed opportunities, it was Northwestern who controlled the ball as the game wound down as they kicked the game winning field goal with nine seconds remaining and survived to win 23-21. Here is what Happy Valley can take away following the heartbreaking loss:
1. Mike Gesecki hit hard by sophomore slump
Gesecki has had a rough year. Throughout the entire season, the tight end has found it increasingly difficult to hold onto the ball when Hackenberg delivers him a strike.
Gesecki dropped the ball three times early on as Penn State was trying to move the ball and did not help the early offensive struggles. His struggles did not stop there, however, as he continued to plague the team with a crucial false start and arriving to the field late, making Franklin have to use a time out.
That was just in the first half.
Gesecki would finish the game with just one reception for five yards. A player of his size would be a huge asset in the passing game if he was able to not only catch the ball, but also limit his other mistakes that hurt the team.
A few drops on the year usually is not too much to worry about, but when it becomes a chronic issue and the same player causes more problems on the field, they become simply a liability.
2. If you lose on third down, you lose the game
Third downs are the most crucial downs of football games, bar none. Success on these downs can determine a lot of things, but most importantly it tells a team what they can realistically do on their fourth and final down and whether they should forfeit the ball or not.
To say Penn State has problems in this area would be severely understated. They are atrocious on the game’s most crucial down, and have been all season.
Against Northwestern, the Nittany Lions finished with a third down conversion rate of 23.5 percent, going 4-17. In losses this year, they converted on only 17 percent on third-downs, converting only seven times total in those games.
What does this all add up to? The second-worst third-down conversion rate in the country. On the season, the team has gone 39-138 for a percentage of 28.3 percent.
Numbers never lie, and neither does the scoreboard when third downs are a bad omen.
3. No school record is safe with this team
Even in a loss, there are good things to take away. This Penn State squad has been breaking school records all season long and continue to rewrite the record books after stellar performances by several individuals.
Christian Hackenberg could now fill an entire dorm room with plaques that list his accomplishments this year. Even though he had a poor performance against the Wildcats and failed to score himself, he has the opportunity to break Matt McGloin’s career passing touchdowns record this season if he can get two more.
Senior Carl Nassib, the man who leads the country in sacks and tackles for loss, broke the Penn State single-season sack record, reaching 15.5 on the year. Nassib sat on the sideline during the game’s defining moments, but he has been a crucial element to this defense all season and the stats back it up.
Saquon Barkley also has made a mark in his first campaign, tying the school record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman with seven. He will look to claim yet another accolade as the season closes, needing 167 rushing yards to break the freshman record in that statistic.
4. Geno Lewis making most of second chance
In the rout against Rutgers back in week three, Geno Lewis did not see the field until garbage time with the team’s second unit. Weeks later, he has worked his way back into the starting lineup and has been one of the team’s biggest playmakers.
Off of a lucky bounce in a trick-play-gone-wrong, Lewis scooped up the ball from the ground and chucked a near-perfect 32-yard bomb to DaeSean Hamilton, earning him the only Penn State touchdown in the air all game.
The play kept the Lions alive and brought them within a score of the Wildcats. This was just one of many big plays Lewis has made in recent memory. In the last three games, he has three touchdowns and has been beating his defenders in the air in jump ball opportunities.
While he may only have five catches in the past three games, he has made them all count and his resurgence has allowed him to come up big when the team needs it the most.
5. Top 25 teams win when it counts
In the three games Penn State has played this season against teams that are currently ranked, there have been two common themes; they all were on the road and they all were losses.
The Nittany Lions biggest issues have come up in the only games in which they faced a formidable opponent. In these games, they have been outscored 88-41 and have little to no identity on their offense for the majority of the games.
This is a big reason why this squad will still sit on the outside looking in for yet another week, and possibly for the remainder of the year. The Lions have not been ranked in the top 25 since December of 2011 and will have to win out to even have consideration to break that drought.
It may be a while before Penn State will once again find itself among the nation’s 25 best, but before they can get there, they have some questions to answer and some adjustments to make.
Ryan Berti is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter: @RBirdman7.