|Northwestern 17, Penn State 7|
|November 8, 2003|
|Ryan Field - Evanston, IL|
|Kickoff Time: 12:00 p.m. EDT|
Ill. - By the time Penn State's beleaguered Nittany Lions lined up amid
the swirling snowflakes for yesterday's Big Ten Conference game against
Northwestern at frigid Ryan Field, they figured they had already explored
every possible way to lose a game.
They figured wrong.
In a defeat that appeared to leave coach Joe Paterno more despondent than any of the first seven, a pass that seemed destined to be intercepted by Yaacov Yisrael caromed into the hands of Northwestern's Brandon Horn for a 41-yard touchdown, breaking a 7-7 tie late in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats went on to win, 17-7, and keep their bowl hopes alive.
"It's seems like it's always something," said Zack Mills, who tossed an interception with under four minutes remaining to seal the sixth consecutive loss for the Nittany Lions. "And if it's not that, it's something else."
The defeat dropped Penn State to 2-8 overall and 0-6 in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions, who began playing football in 1887, had lost eight games only once before, going 2-8 in 1931.
Paterno had hoped that his team would build on its gritty effort against Ohio State last week, when it pushed the defending national champion to the brink before losing, 21-20.
Instead, the 76-year-old coach was left to ponder a rebuilding process that many think he is no longer up to handling.
"As you can imagine, I have all kinds of thoughts going through my head right now," he said, forcing a weak smile. "I need to just sit back, get on the plane, and go home tonight and figure out some things, look at some tapes. But I've always been pretty resilient. I think I'll be all right. We'll see."
Of course, it was more than that one crazy play that beat Penn State. There were also the familiar pratfalls.
The Nittany Lions had the opportunity to take a commanding first-half lead, but David Kimball missed field goals from 27 and 34 yards out, and Maurice Humphrey dropped a seemingly sure TD pass at the Northwestern 10 with Penn State in front by 7-0 on a 1-yard plunge by Mills.
"I had a chance to make a big play, but I didn't," said Humphrey, a converted defensive back who did hold onto eight throws for 97 yards. "I dropped a pass, and we missed field goals. If I hold on to the ball, we're up 14."
Instead, the Nittany Lions managed only seven points against a defense ranked ninth in the conference in points allowed.
"We wasted a lot of scoring chances," Paterno lamented. "We could have put them away."
Unable to force Northwestern (5-5 overall, 3-3 conference) to do something it doesn't do well - play catch-up - Penn State fell victim to the Wildcats' punishing running game.
Noah Herron, a bruising 5-foot-11, 235-pound junior, plowed through the Nittany Lions for 180 yards on 35 carries. He became the 10th player to run for more than 100 yards against Penn State this season, further exposing the soft underbelly of the defense.
Freshman linebacker Paul Posluszny protected Penn State's 7-0 lead by stopping Herron on fourth and goal from the 1 midway through the third quarter. But Penn State's offense spun its wheels in the second half, partly because of terrible field position. And it seemed to be only a matter of time before Northwestern would find the end zone.
"When we needed to come through, we stunk," said a clearly disgusted Mills, who completed 22 of 36 passes for 230 yards. "That's basically it. A lot of that goes on me. I'm not blaming others."
The Wildcats used some sleight of hand to set up their first TD, which came on a 6-yard run by Jason Wright with 6 minutes, 49 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. On fourth and 7 from the Penn State 19, Eric Batis, who holds for field goals, lined up behind the center, took a direct snap, faked a handoff to Herron, and ran 8 yards for a first down.
Wildcats coach Randy Walker called the play "a change-up" and said that he had never used it before.
"I made that one up," he said.
Earlier this season, Northwestern had used a similar play in a win over Wisconsin, except that Batis had handed the ball to Herron, who ran for a big gain.
But neither Walker nor anyone else could have made up the play for the winning touchdown. On third and 9 from the Penn State 41, Brett Basanez lofted a long pass down the middle toward Horn. Yisrael, a safety, and cornerback Rich Gardner converged on the ball. Yisrael got both hands on it before Gardner collided with him. It deflected off Yisrael and into the hands of Horn for the TD with 4:50 remaining.
" 'Cov had great position on the ball," Gardner said. "He was going to pick it off. I made a break on the ball. I was just trying to make a play out there. It was pretty much my fault."
Mills was also trying to make a play when he rolled left to avoid a rushing linebacker and fired a pass over the middle that was picked off by safety Torri Stuckey, dooming Penn State to defeat.
"I feel bad for everyone," he said. "We're letting a lot of people down. We're letting our coach down, our fans down and ourselves down. It's very frustrating."
Notes: Middle linebacker Gino Capone, Penn State's leading tackler, left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury that likely ended the season for the senior......Freshman running back Austin Scott did not play. Instead, backup quarterback Michael Robinson played tailback.