Down by one with two minutes left, Northwestern faced a third-and-15 from its own 40 yard line.
The Wildcats were without their starting quarterback and two offensive linemen, and backup Zack Oliver overthrew slot receiver Austin Carr.
Then, Northwestern won.
Carr went into a full-extension dive and snagged Oliver’s pass for a 23-yard gain and a first down. After five Justin Jackson rushes, Jack Mitchell trotted out and kicked a 35-yard field goal to give the Wildcats the win.
Mitchell’s leg salvaged what would have been a disappointing day for him and his team. Prior to that final kick, he had missed two field goals and an extra point, and the Wildcats had blown a 20-7 halftime lead.
“You just gotta try to not let yourself get down at all,” Mitchell said. “If I made my field goals and extra points, we would have been up by six at that point…it’s on me to right that.”
The Wildcats had all the momentum and a 13-point lead going into halftime after Solomon Vault sprinted down the sideline 96 yards for his second kickoff return touchdown of the season and the third of his career, both team records. Penn State’s offense struggled to get going after recess and appeared to punt the ball back to Northwestern midway through the third quarter, but a roughing the punter penalty on Warren Long kept the Lions’ drive alive.
After the penalty, Penn State got tricky, dialing up a wide receiver pass from Geno Lewis to DeSean Hamilton to get within 20-14.
On the Wildcats’ next drive Jason Cabinda intercepted Oliver, and the Lions cashed in on that field position two drives later, when running back Saquon Barkley took the snap, kept the ball, and bullied his way in from 13 yards out to give Penn State a 21-20 lead, completing a Northwestern collapse which seemed inevitable due to offensive injuries.
Clayton Thorson left early in the second quarter with the game still scoreless and did not return, left guard Geoff Mogus didn’t play in the second half, and center Ian Park left early in the third.
The Wildcats never got comfortable on offense with all those substitutes, and things looked bleak when NU punted to Hackenberg, Barkley, and Penn State with 11 minutes left.
Nick VanHoose gave the Wildcats hope when he intercepted Hackenberg and had only grass in front of him, but the senior cornerback lost his balance, went down at his own 30, and nine plays later Northwestern punted again.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald starting burning time outs, and the game came down to a third-and-one. Penn State came out with Barkley under center, a look that had produced two touchdowns earlier in the game.
“That was the exact play we expected them to run,” Fitzgerald said. “When you don’t fit plays right, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the wildcat or the bobcat or whatever.”
But reserve linebacker Nate Hall fit the biggest play of the game correctly, stuffing Barkley to set the stage for Oliver.
“He’s been through so much,” Fitzgerald said of his backup quarterback. Fitzgerald was proud “to see him just stay the course, preparing the right way, and being prepared when the opportunity presents itself.”
Oliver completed 11 of his 24 passes for 111 yards and a second quarter touchdown to Christian Jones, and scored a one-yard rushing touchdown on the read option to extend the Wildcat lead to 13-0.
But he couldn’t have done it without the re-emergence of Justin Jackson.
“Having him to lean on as an offense as a whole… is a really big asset,” Oliver said.
Held in check against Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska, Jackson took 28 carries for a career-high 188 yards, including a 48-yard scamper to set up Northwestern’s second touchdown and a seven-yard run on a key third-and-five to make Mitchell’s winning field goal more manageable.
“I just think our mindset was a lot better today,” Jackson said. “We were going to run the ball and we were going to be successful.”
Jackson wasn’t the only one who knew the Wildcats would succeed on Saturday.
“He’s gonna make the kick,” Fitzgerald said of Mitchell. “We’ve got great confidence in Jack, I had full confidence he was going to make that kick. When a guy misses a few, you don’t lose confidence in him.”
The Wildcats lost plenty on Saturday, including their starting quarterback, two linemen, and a 13-point halftime lead, but found a way to win.