Penn State football 2011 - Game 8 - PSU 34 (7-1, 4-0), Northwestern 24 (2-5, 0-4)
The score was 27-24. PSU and Northwestern combined for 574 yards. Silas Redd had his fourth straight 100-yard game. It had been a great, thrilling game.
What? It was just halftime?
Rarely has a game had as stark a contrast as PSU's 34-24 win at Northwestern. All offense in the first half (51 points). All defense in the second (7 points). That's a staggering 44-point differential.
The 51 first-half points were more than in any PSU full game this season.
Yet PSU fans will remember this one only for two compelling sidebars: 1. Joe Paterno equaled Grambling legend Eddie Robinson's 408 wins, and 2. We may have seen the last of Rob Bolden as a Penn State quarterback, and could get Matt McGloin for the next 19 games or so.
Paterno was customarily confounding and evasive about the quarterback situation afterward, same as always. But McGloin made his first start of 2011 Saturday and went the distance. He didn't play badly. And "didn't play badly" is the new "good" in this PSU season of nosediving aspirations for QB performance. He played well in the first half, not so well in the second. Barring a marked decline in McGloin's play - which is entirely possible against the stout defenses of Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin - Bolden might not see the field again this season.
If he doesn't - and considering his slip-sliding career trajectory and prior threat to transfer - it would be shocking if Bolden remained at Penn State in 2012. Which might be for the better the way his confidence has evaporated. Perhaps he could use a fresh start for the final two years of his eligibility.
But that issue can be visited later. The much bigger concern for now is Penn State's fantabulous presence atop the Leaders Division with a 4-0 Big Ten record (what a finish in the Michigan State-Wisconsin game!), and how can the Lions stay there with four more conference games to go?
Already, big-time national media types such as Brent Musberger are dismissing (ignoring?) PSU's chances of reaching the inaugural Big Ten title game. Said Musberger after Wisconsin's Hail Mary defeat to Michigan State, "The Big Ten should be so lucky to get a rematch in their championship game."
Chris Fowler followed that up on the College GameDay set afterward when speaking to MSU QB Kirk Cousins: "This will get fans on your side and their side talking about a potential rematch in Indianapolis.''
Musberger, Fowler, and ESPN's Rece Davis, who echoed the same sentiments, probably are correct: PSU will not stay ahead of Wisconsin in the Leaders Division with the comatose offense it unveiled in the second half Saturday. Despite racking up nearly 300 yards in the first half and holding only a slim lead in the second, the Lions dialed it down, stopped executing crisply and were shut down after intermission.
That of course left it in the hands of the defense. Which held on. Barely.
Midway through the fourth quarter Northwestern had a first down at the PSU 17 and was poised to make it 34-31, or at least 34-27, with momentum and a faltering PSU offense in its favor. But Wildcats QB Dan Persa, who had been brilliant (26-of-34, 295 yards), was tackled from behind by Jack Crawford and sustained a toe injury that knocked him out of the game. Backup QB/running specialist Kain Colter then was sacked on successive plays, knocking Northwestern out of FG range.
If Persa doesn't get injured, who knows what happens?
The PSU defense also was primarily responsible for the only points of the second half. A 19-yard, one-play Penn State scoring "drive" on its first possession of the third quarter (a Redd TD run) was set up by LB Gerald Hodges' 63-yard interception return.
If the Lions continue to live this close to the edge, they are bound to tumble. That's the fifth win this season, and fourth in four games, by 10 points or less.
The Musbergers and Fowlers of the world actually might be doing precarious PSU a favor by dismissing them. The Lions aren't good enough to play frontrunner. They can use the chip on their shoulder. They've been successful lurking in the background. They've been at their best operating in the margins, without the national attention thrust upon them. Let Wisconsin, or someone else, falter beneath the expectations.
Which makes it fitting that McGloin will be the PSU quarterback. Maybe such a disrespected team should have an unheralded walk-on as its quarterback. For better or worse.