Saturday’s game between the Northwestern Wildcats and Penn State Nittany Lions was one of penalties, punts and missed opportunities. The two teams combined for 16 penalties for 150 yards, 19 punts and a one-for-three field goal completion.
Prior to to the game both defenses were highlighted to be the determining factor for both teams, but it was special teams who came up with some of the biggest plays of the game.
Northwesten’s Jack Mitchell went from being villian to superhero with his late game-winning field goal. Before his winning field goal Mitchell missed a first-quarter 39-yard field goal, a point-after attempt and a third-quarter 47-yard field goal.
Without some big plays by the defense, Nick VanHoose interception and a Nate Hall tackle on third down, Mitchell’s seven points left on the field could have cost the Wildcats the game.
While Mitchell struggled Solomon Vault came up with the biggest special teams play, returning a kickoff 96 yards for the touchdown. Vaults return was right after a Penn State touchdown and kept the Nittany Lions at arms length.
After Clayton Thorson left the game with a lower body in the first quarter Justin Jackson willed his Northwestern teammates to victory. Jackson rushed for a career-high 188 yards. Touching the ball 28 times Jackson averaged 6.6 yards with a longest 48 yards.
Northwestern’s defense looked more like the defense of the 5-0 team than the teams who go blown out against Michigan and Iowa. When Northwestern was on their winning streak one their third-down conversion rate was low. Saturday Northwestern held Penn State to 4-17 on third downs. There was pressure on Hackenberg throughout the game from the front line and the secondary closed out on receivers limiting their big play chances.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Thorson was excited for the team win and nothing else when asked about the severity of Thorson’s injury. Thorson was throwing during halftime and throughout the third quarter on the sidelines.
Besides Jackson’s stats his will to win and carry his team (both literally and figuratively) was impressive to watch. For a player who has seen his role decrease over the past few weeks respond the way he did shows the mentality of Jackson. He is a player who will do everything he needs to do in order to put his team in the best position to score. If Thorson is not 100 percent by next week look for Jackson to get upwards of 20 carries.
Last week Northwestern was ranked 21 in the College Football Playoff rankings and after having one of the toughest schedules in the country, being a seven win team and beating a seven win team Northwestern should move up in the rankings to play in a bigger bowl game.