By Jordan Ray
In the first quarter, Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell missed a field goal.
In the second quarter, he missed an extra point.
In the third quarter, he missed another field goal.
In the fourth quarter, he won the game.
Mitchell’s field goal with nine seconds left secured a 23-21 win for the No. 21-ranked Northwestern Wildcats at home Saturday against the Penn State Nittany Lions.
“I was being reminded the entire time that the game was pretty much on me,” Mitchell said. “In my mind, if I made my field goals and extra points, we would’ve been up by six.”
Instead, the Wildcats trailed 21-20 in the fourth quarter after squandering a 20-7 halftime lead.
“I had full confidence he was going to make that kick,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s pretty good. When a guy misses a few, you don’t lose confidence in him.”
Mitchell has made 29-of-39 field goals (74.4 percent) in his career.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson went down in the first quarter with a lower body injury, so senior Zack Oliver played the final three quarters. Oliver threw for 111 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score.
Thorson is expected to play Saturday against Purdue.
Mitchell’s first miss came with Thorson still in the game. He then missed the extra point after Oliver’s lone touchdown pass of the day.
“(It was) on me to kind of right that,” Mitchell said. “People were saying, ‘It’s going to come down to you. Stay focused. Respond.’”
A 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by sophomore Solomon Vault helped give the Wildcats their halftime lead, but the Nittany Lions fought back in the second half.
Mitchell missed his second field goal on the second drive of the third quarter, and Penn State took advantage.
On the ensuing possession, Penn State wide receiver Geno Lewis threw a 32-yard touchdown pass on a broken trick play, cutting Northwestern’s lead to 20-14 after the extra point.
Running back Saquon Barkley later ran for a 13-yard touchdown, which helped give Penn State a 21-20 lead. Barkley rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on the day.
The Wildcats had two priorities during their bye week: converting third downs on offense and getting stops on third down on defense. With time running out, they had to execute both give Mitchell a chance to win the game.
Trailing 21-20 with 2:28 left, Northwestern’s defense faced a critical third down.
With Northwestern having already used two of its timeouts, a Penn State first down would mean the Wildcats would have almost no time to drive for a game-winner.
Needing only one yard, the Nittany Lions gave the ball to Barkley.
It wasn’t enough.
Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker stuffed Barkley’s attempt for a loss, forcing Penn State to punt with about two minutes remaining.
“That was a huge play for us,” defensive end Dean Lowry said.
Walker, the team’s leading tackler, had 10 tackles on the day, including a sack and three tackles for loss.
The offense made the most of its final possession.
Facing third and 15, Oliver lofted a 23-yard pass to wide receiver Austin Carr, putting the Wildcats at midfield.
Northwestern faced third and five later in the drive, but converted it with a seven-yard run from Justin Jackson. The sophomore running back ran for 186 yards on the day, which brought his career total up to 2,104.
Jackson ranks 10th in school history for career rushing yards.
Fitzgerald then went to his kicker and asked if he wanted the ball on the left hash mark or the middle of the field.
“Well, I’d like the middle, but whatever you have,” Mitchell responded.
This wasn’t the first time Mitchell could win the game with a kick: he made a game-winning field goal last season during Northwestern’s 43-40 overtime upset over Notre Dame.
Mitchell has also never missed a potentially game-winning field goal.
“With that under my belt, I feel like this was not as big of a moment,” Mitchell said. “That just really helped me stay focused.”
Sure enough, his 35-yard attempt Saturday sailed through the uprights, securing a Wildcats win. The victory improved Northwestern to 7-2 overall (3-2 in Big Ten play) and dropped Penn State to 7-3 (4-2 Big Ten).
“It’s the next step,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl.”
The Wildcats need to win out and hope for a few upsets at the top of the Big Ten for Northwestern to still be playing at the start of next year.