WNUR’s Marty Johnson breaks down some key plays from Northwestern’s seventh win of the season, a thrilling 23-21 victory over Penn State.
Play # 1: Oliver to Christian Jones touchdown
After starting quarterback Clayton Thorson went down late in the first quarter, senior backup Zach Oliver was given the reins of the Northwestern offense. With the ‘Cats’ offense deep in the Nittany Lion territory thanks to a 35 yard run by Warren Long, Oliver delivered the first score of the game. Taking the ball out of the shotgun, Oliver looked left then threw a bullet over the middle to Christian Jones, who started in the slot and found a seam in Penn State’s zone coverage in the middle of the end zone between at least four Lion defenders. Penn State only rushed four on this play, which mean even with an empty backfield, linemen Geoff Mogus and Ian Park could double-team Penn State’s Anthony Zettel, while tackles Eric Olson and Blake Hance slowed down Carl Nassib and Curtis Cothran. Nassib and Cothran nearly got to Oliver, but the senior got rid of the ball quickly and was on the same page as Jones. This throw not only gave the Cats the lead, but it was Oliver’s second best throw of the day. More on his best throw later.
Play #2: Solomon Vault kickoff return touchdown
With a little over two minutes to play before half, Solomon Vault delivered a potential knockout punch to the Nittany Lions. Vault had trouble fielding a squib kick on the right side of the field at the five yard line, but eventually secured the football and weaved his way between a couple of defenders. 96 yards later he was in the end zone, giving the Wildcats a two possession lead at halftime. Coach Fitzgerald plays his superbacks on special teams, and they paid dividends on this play. Garrett Dickerson and Dan Vitale lay early blocks to spring Vault, and he makes a couple people miss at midfield before getting a breakaway block from reserve linebacker Joseph Jones at the Northwestern 35 yard line. From there, Vault’s breakaway speed took over, and he was not challenged on the last 65 yards of his scamper.
Play #3: VanHoose Picks Hackenberg
The Nittany Lions, however, wouldn’t go away. With 14:04 left in the game, Saquon Barkley tied the game with a fourteen-yard touchdown run, and the ensuing extra point gave the Lions a one-point lead. With 7:15 left in the game, the Nittany Lions were on the Wildcat 33-yard line and driving, but on third and thirteen, Hackenberg stared down Saeed Blacknall on the right side, allowing cornerback Nick VanHoose to jump the route and end the drive. Northwestern did not get much pressure on this play, only rushing four, but the ‘Cats rotated well to allow VanHoose to stay with Blacknall. Anthony Walker shifts over to cover DaeSean Hamilton in the short middle, while Keith Watkins III backpedals to man Chris Godwin.
Play #4: Oliver to Carr on Third-and-Long
With 2:02 left in the game, Zack Oliver made the throw of the day. On third and fifteen from his own 41 yard line, Oliver lofted a pass on the left side to junior Austin Carr for 23 yards and a first down. Oliver recognizes the Penn State defensive package, and calls Solomon Vault in from the slot to block. This is a game-saving decision, as Penn State brings six on the play, and Vault holds off blitzing Brandon Bell long enough for Oliver to release the ball. Penn State also has a coverage breakdown on the play, as safety Marcus Allen gets caught in no man’s land waiting for Vault to run a route out of the backfield. With no safety help, cornerback Grant Haley can’t get confused, but he does as Carr and Mike McHugh’s routes cross. Trevor Williams stays with McHugh, but Haley ends up a step behind Carr, and that step is all the room Oliver needed to drop in the football.
Play #5: Mitchell Game-Winning Field Goal
Jack Mitchell, who had missed two field goals and an extra point during the game, overcame this adversity to kick the game winning 35-yard field goal with 13 seconds remaining. Holder Christian Salem does an incredible job on this play, as he has only a split second to take a wobbly snap and set the ball up for Mitchell. As he predicted on twitter earlier in the week, Salem came through in the clutch and allowed Mitchell to kick the winner just ahead of the dive of Penn State’s Grant Haley, who went unblocked on the play.