UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Fifth-year defensive end Nick Tarburton was involved in two takeaways and the rest of No. 11 Penn State’s (5-0) defense held Northwestern (1-4) in check to overcome five Nittany Lion turnovers in a 17-7 win on a rainy Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State’s offense was loose with the ball during a wet first half, as freshman running back Nicholas Singleton had a pair of fumbles and sixth-year quarterback Sean Clifford threw his second interception of the season. But the Nittany Lions’ defense generated a trio of first-half takeaways, including a pick by fifth-year safety Ji’Ayir Brown of Northwestern’s fourth-year quarterback Ryan Hilinski.
The Nittany Lions got on the board shortly after Brown’s interception, as Clifford connected with fourth-year tight end Brenton Strange for a 20-yard strike. Two drives later, Penn State doubled its lead to 14-0 on a Singleton 2-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter.
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Singleton was involved in six of the Nittany Lions’ seven plays on a scoring drive that was set up by a Tarburton fumble recovery on Northwestern’s prior offensive series.
The relentless downpour of rain eased up halfway through the third quarter and briefly ignited the Wildcats’ offensive attack. Northwestern finally got on the board when Hilinski found a wide-open receiver in third-year Jacob Gill for a 47-yard touchdown to trim Penn State’s advantage in half to 14-7.
The Nittany Lions offense responded in the fourth quarter, though, as a methodical seven-play, 54-yard drive ended in a 38-yard field goal by fifth-year kicker Jake Pinegar that put the home squad up 17-7. Northwestern nearly got its second touchdown of the game on its ensuing possession, but Hilinski was called short of the end zone on a fourth-and-goal quarterback keeper from the Nittany Lions’ 1-yard line.
Northwestern’s offense never seriously threatened the rest of the fourth quarter and Penn State’s offense was able to run out the clock down the stretch to eventually eke out a victory.
Three is a magic number
For most of the day, Northwestern struggled to do anything right on offense. The Wildcats went three-and-out four times in the first half and only racked up 78 yards of total offense by halftime, with more than a third of Northwestern’s yardage coming on a 29-yard gallop by fourth-year running back Evan Hull.
The Wildcats offense fared better in the second half, as Northwestern had just one three-and-out after the break and found the end zone.
But on a suboptimal day for throwing the football, Hilinski struggled to complete much down the field aside from his deep shot to Gill. Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was able to load the box, and Northwestern failed to effectively establish a running game.
After five games in as many weeks and a pair of road contests, Penn State will be off with a bye next weekend. But when the undefeated Nittany Lions return to action the following week, it’ll be for the highest-anticipated Big Ten matchup of the season thus far.
So long as No. 4 Michigan (5-0) holds up its end of the bargain with a road win at Indiana next week, the Wolverines will welcome the Nittany Lions to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a matchup of two undefeated Big Ten East teams on Oct. 15.
It’ll be the Nittany Lions’ stiffest test of the year before continuing with a brutal stretch of games in the month of October that includes matchups against No. 21 Minnesota and No. 3 Ohio State. Considering Penn State is just a win away from bowl eligibility, the three games coming up after the bye week will have a significant impact on the Nittany Lions’ postseason outlook.