Apparently, Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell has the #TreDempsClutchGene. Mitchell knocked through a 35-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining, and Northwestern held off Penn State’s second-half rally with a 23-21 win. After dominating early in the game, injuries caught up to the Wildcats’ offensive line and the offense stalled under backup quarterback Zach Oliver, leading to the exciting finish. Let’s take a look at the NUmbers behind Northwestern’s seventh victory of the season.
How did Justin Jackson break out of his recent slump? How about a career high 186 rushing yards on 28 carries? Jackson also had a career-high 6.6 yards per carry, breaking off a couple of long runs and leaving no doubt that he is the Wildcats’ best offensive player. In fairness to Jackson, his 95 yards combined in the past three games came against solid rush defenses and in games where the ‘Cats abandoned the run early on. When Jackson goes, this Northwestern offense goes.
Again, Northwestern’s defense stood firm on third down, holding Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions to just 4 of 17 on third down – 23.5 percent. The Wildcats defense ranks No. 13 in the nation in 3rd down defense and it showed against the Nittany Lions. The ‘Cats defense was able to get off the field on third down, consistently making sure tackles prior to the first down marker, unlike previous games vs. Iowa and Michigan. Aside from two drives, one of which had 30 yards in penalties, the ‘Cats defense stepped up Saturday and held Penn State in check for most of the game.
Part of the reason for Northwestern’s second-half sloppiness and Penn State’s near-comeback was an uncharacteristic lack of discipline for Northwestern. The Wildcats committed the fewest penalties in the Big Ten through the first eight games, but had seven penalties for 80 yards on Saturday. Three of those penalties were unnecessary personal fouls, two coming on a drive that led to a Geno Lewis touchdown pass that put Penn State within six points. The Nittany Lions made some plays in the second half, but the defensive penalties made it easier for them to do so, and nearly led to a loss.
Zach Oliver took over for an injured Clayton Thorson late in the first quarter and, for the most part, did his job in filling in. It’s unlikely that a quarterback controversy will develop in Evanston, however, as Oliver struggled later on in the game which produced a 21.6 raw QBR. After a passing touchdown to Christian Jones and a rushing touchdown within a yard of the goal line, Oliver was unable to consistently throw down the field. He delivered on the final drive of the game, however, with a clutch throw to Austin Carr that led to Mitchell’s deciding field goal. The senior certainly helped lead the Cats to the victory, but the answer at quarterback, if health isn’t a factor, is most likely in Thorson’s hands (and legs).
30.5 vs. 22.8
In the punt-fest that was the first quarter of this football game, Northwestern gained the upper-hand in terms of field position in the first quarter and kept it for much of the game. Northwestern and Penn State combined for 20 punts in the game – 11 for Penn State and 9 for Northwestern – but neither of the punters had the greatest average. In close Big Ten games, field position is key and Northwestern took advantage. Two of Northwestern’s three scoring drives started in front of their own 40 yard line. And Northwestern was continually able to pin the Nittany Lions deep and force three and outs.
S&P+ projections put Northwestern at 4.8 expected wins through 9 games, but on the field the Wildcats are 7-2. Northwestern has won every single close game this year, their only losses coming in blowouts to Michigan and Iowa. The ‘Cats have won all their close games against Stanford, Duke, Ball State, Nebraska and Penn State. While the ‘Cats have played well this season, they’ve also been lucky, but after two “unlucky” years in 2013 and 2014, this luck may be warranted.