Former NFL commissioner Bert Bell first coined the phrase “any given Sunday,” which refers to the idea that regardless of expectations, any football team has the chance to beat another.
In the case of Northwestern football (1-4, 1-1 B1G), their “any given Sunday” was more of an “any given Saturday, complete with torrential downpours caused by a hurricane” when they took on the Penn State Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 B1G) last weekend.
Despite the unusual weather, the forecast for the game did not change, as No. 10 Penn State won at home, 17-7.
That’s not for lack of trying on the part of the Wildcats’ defense. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s crew put forth a strong performance to open the game yet again, holding the Nittany Lions scoreless on their first three drives. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald noted the effort, stating that the defense put up a “valiant performance.”
The offense, on the other hand, had one of their worst outings of the season so far. Ryan Hilinski completed just 41% of his passes, and the ground game didn’t provide much help, as third-year running backs Evan Hull and Cam Porter combined for just 40 yards on 18 carries.
The linebackers, who were relatively quiet to open the season, stepped up in State College. Third-years Xander Mueller and Bryce Gallagher led the team in tackles with 14 and 12 respectively, and Gallagher made the first interception of his career in the first quarter.
The defense generated five turnovers during the game, the most of any game this season, with four of those being fumble recoveries. Mueller acknowledged that “the ball was a bit slippery,” giving some credit to Mother Nature for the high turnover rate.
Unfortunately, the ’Cats offense fared no better when they had the ball. The offense crossed midfield just three times in eight first quarter drives, with one of those ending in an interception that gave Penn State the opportunity to score the first touchdown of the game. Fitzgerald credited the Nittany Lions, saying that the Wildcats “ran into a really good defense.”
Regardless of the offensive woes, Northwestern was still within reach of Penn State at halftime, down 14-0. They inched closer in the third quarter, as second-year wide receiver Jacob Gill found himself wide open for a touchdown to bring the game within one score.
Gill mentioned in the postgame press conference that he and starting quarterbackHilinski worked on plays just like the one that found the endzone Saturday. That would be the only time the team scored in the game – although the ’Cats improved after halftime, they wouldn’t score again, even from a 4th-and-goal opportunity from the one yard line.
Fitzgerald noticed the effort, mentioning how the team “just came up a play or two short.”
Northwestern lost again, the team’s fifth in a row following the season-opening win against Nebraska. But unlike last week’s loss to Miami, this game offered some upsides for the ‘Cats. The weather affected Penn State’s offense, but the Wildcats’ defense has clearly turned itself around after the first three weeks of the season, and the emergence of Muller and Gallagher at the second level can hopefully become a mainstay of the team down the stretch. The offensive performance sparks concern, but hopefully a clearer forecast will help the unit get back on track.
Northwestern’s next game comes on October 8 at home against Wisconsin as part of the Homecoming festivities. After the thwarted effort against Penn State, next week could be the ’Cats given Saturday.