STATE College, Pa. | Penn State was just fine leaving a soaked Beaver Stadium with a 17-7 win over Northwestern, which marked the team’s ugliest game of the season.
The No. 11 Lions (5-0) committed a season-high four turnovers (400 percent more than in its first four games combined) and labored to generate consistent offense in a first-half driving rain. But the defense pinched Northwestern, holding it without a first down until the second quarter, and forced three turnovers of its own.
With that mess behind it, Penn State is 5-0 for the second consecutive season and looks forward to a week off before beginning its October gauntlet with an Oct. 15 visit to Michigan.
The Penn State-Northwestern recap.
The Turning Point
Northwestern’s second-half head of steam, which included a 47-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Hilinski to Jacob Gill, crashed inward on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Trailing 17-7, coach Pat Fitzgerald called for a Hilinski sneak, which the Lions stuffed (tackle PJ Mustipher was credited with the tackle).
It was an aggressive call for Northwestern. To that point, Penn State had stuffed 11 of the Wildcats’ 25 run plays for no gain or a loss.
Kaytron Allen Arrives in the Second Half
Freshman running back Kaytron Allen did not play in the first half, despite two fumbles by Nicholas Singleton. Allen started the second half and took control, playing nearly every snap after Lee added a third fumble.
Allen ran assertively on the Lions’ first drive of the second half, which ended with Lee’s fumble. He also had his first two carries for loss of the season, resulting in a third-quarter field goal. However, Allen added his own fumble in the fourth quarter.
Another Erratic Afternoon for Sean Clifford
Beyond a couple throws, the Penn State quarterback had a rough day. But those two throws made an impact.
In the first half, Clifford executed a lovely play fake and hit tight end Brenton Strange for a 20-yard touchdown. And late in the third quarter, Clifford floated a 43-yard completion to Parker Washington late in the third quarter.
That play mattered. First, it followed on the drive after Northwestern’s Jacob Gill got loose against a linebacker for a 47-yard touchdown catch. The Lions needed a big moment, even though it led to just a field goal.
Second, Clifford hasn’t been very effective on downfield throws this season. He was 1-for-10 on attempts of 15+ yards against Central Michigan, and his longest completion (a 67-yard touchdown to Strange at Purdue) included 40 yards after the catch.
It was the Lions’ longest play to that point was 20 yards (Strange’s leaping touchdown). Because of the weather, the attempt was only Penn State’s second to that point longer than 15 yards.
Clifford finished 10 for 20 for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Ball Control Plagues Penn State
The Lions practice wet-ball drills whenever they expect to play in problematic weather. However, they hadn’t fumbled through the first four games and had just one turnover. On Saturday, all three running backs fumbled.
The defense, however, compensated. Northwestern did nothing with the five turnovers. The Wildcats followed two with three-and-outs, two with turnovers and the last with a fourth-down incompletion. Northwestern totaled eight yards on the four possessions.
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A Messy First Half
Penn State began the game, and the second half, with a plus-8 turnover margin this season. In between, the Lions forced and lost three turnovers.
The first-half rain clearly affected ball protection, as each team lost three turnovers. Singleton fumbled twice, and Clifford threw a sketchy interception. Meanwhile, Penn State defensive end Nick Tarburton had a hand in two turnovers (he forced and recovered separate fumbles), and safety Ji’Ayir Brown made his second interception of the season.
Did You Notice?
Singleton certainly has demonstrated his strength in Penn State’s weight room but was more of an outside speed threat through the season’s first month. In the first half against Northwestern, Singleton showcased a power that will be important in October.
Singleton bulled into the end zone on a 2-yard touchdown run that game the Lions a 14-0 lead. Stopped a the line of scrimmage, Singleton continued driving his legs until space emerged. Prior to the touchdown run, Singleton delivered a strong block on Keyvone Lee’s fourth-down conversion.
Did You Notice?
Penn State played just two running backs in the first half. Devyn Ford was not in uniform for the game.
Tackle Hakeem Beamon broke up back-to-back passes in the fourth quarter, giving Penn State possession at the Northwestern 35-yard line.
Mustipher played one of his better games of the season, with eight tackles and the key fourth-down clog.
Penn State has a bye before visiting Michigan on Oct. 15. The kickoff time is TBA.
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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button’s on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism