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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / 1996

No Miracle Comeback This Time for Northwestern

Big Ten: A 34-9 loss to Penn State virtually takes Wildcats out of the Rose Bowl picture.

November 03, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Northwestern didn't need a comeback Saturday, it needed an exit plan.

And 11 guys who could tackle.

Having over-extended its ATM Miracle Card and exhausted every fathomable game-ending finish, Team Lady Luck ran into Penn State and flag-rippling snow gusts in Happy Valley.

It wasn't a pleasant meeting, as Penn State easily put an end to Northwestern's 13-game Big Ten winning streak with a 34-9 victory before 96,596 at Beaver Stadium.

It was the Wildcats' first conference loss since they lost, 45-17, here in 1994.

The victory was a major boost for No. 15 Penn State (8-2, 4-2) and pretty much a Rose Bowl buster for No. 11 Northwestern (7-2, 5-1), which had hoped to defend its Big Ten title and avenge its Rose Bowl defeat.

Penn State scored 27 points on five consecutive first-half possessions, ran through Wildcat tacklers as though they were standing still--some were--and sacked Northwestern quarterback Steve Schnur seven times.

"He was like one of those clowns you hit and bounce back up," Coach Gary Barnett said of his senior quarterback. "He took some shots."

Given Northwestern's defeat-defying experiences of late, State College appeared a likely place for a fall.

But a pratfall?

"We played a horrible first half," senior cornerback Hudhaifa Ismaeli said. "It's a disgusting feeling."

Northwestern had been flirting with disaster for weeks, winning its last four games by a total of 10 points, all in the last minute.

Down 27-3 at the half, there was locker-room talk of reprising great scenes from earlier works.

"Michigan. Deja Vu. All over again," linebacker Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's what we were talking about."

On Oct. 5, the Wildcats trailed the Wolverines, 16-0, in the fourth quarter and escaped with a 17-16 victory.

Not this time.

"With four minutes left in the game, I thought, 'This is going to be real hard,' " Barnett said.

Real hard, considering Northwestern was down by 25.

The Wildcats' shortcomings in the defensive secondary, masked all year by miracle cover-ups, were exposed at once by a Penn State team out to prove that a couple of Big Ten losses does not a bad team make.

You figured it might not be Northwestern's day when, on the first play from scrimmage, cornerback Mike Nelson stepped in front of a Wally Richardson pass and dropped what should have been a sure interception and touchdown.

"It changed the complexion of the game," Nelson lamented later.

Sure did.

Late in the first quarter, Penn State tailback Curtis Enis ran 39 yards around left end for a touchdown, thanks to inept tackling attempts by the Wildcat secondary.

On the ensuing kickoff, Kim Herring's jarring tackle on Ismaeli forced a fumble, Anthony Cleary recovering on the Northwestern 19. Six plays later, Aaron Harris scored on a one-yard leap to make the score 14-0.

Following a Wildcat field goal, Penn State made it 21-3 on a 63-yard scoring pass from Richardson to Joe Jurevicius, who broke Gerald Conoway's missed tackle along the way.

Brett Conway added field goals of 46 and 39 yards before the half, and that was pretty much it.

Enis, who finished with 167 yards in 21 carries, rolled through Northwestern like a bowling ball over tenpins.

"I read in their media guide that their win over us on national TV last year was their biggest game," Enis said of the Wildcats' 21-10 victory over the Nittany Lions in Evanston last season. "I take that kind of personal."

All hopes of a Northwestern comeback ended when Richardson tossed a seven-yard scoring pass to Joe Nastasi to make the score 34-3 with 6:08 left in the third quarter.

"I thought we were ready to play," Barnett said later.

Northwestern wasn't.

Schnur, facing constant pressure, threw three interceptions and also fumbled. Penn State defensive tackle Brandon Noble (four tackles, three sacks) was in Schnur's face so often he may have come away with whisker burns. Schnur saw this day coming.

"We got ourselves in such a hole today there was no way out of it," he said.

The offensive line leaked like a sieve. So did the secondary, where the Wildcats had to replace three of four starters from last year's squad.

"We had hoped our secondary would grow up and start making plays," Barnett said.

But wasn't it Penn State that entered the game with question marks?

Two weeks ago, at home, the Nittany Lions all but squandered their Rose Bowl hopes with a 21-20 loss to Iowa. Last week, a quarterback controversy arose when Mike McQueary replaced Richardson and led a comeback win over Indiana.

Richardson started Saturday, but Nittany Lion fans were prepared to boo him out of the game.

Instead, Richardson responded with an emotionally charged effort and quelled the controversy, probably for good, completing 11 of 22 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns. "He took all the heat and didn't gripe about it," Coach Joe Paterno said of his quarterback. "Even when I took him out last week, he didn't pout. He was a man about it."

Penn State's win all but ended Northwestern's Rose Bowl dreams. There is a way the Wildcats can get to Pasadena, but it isn't worth losing sleep thinking about.

It will take Northwestern finishing 7-1 in the conference and Ohio State losing its next two games, against Illinois and Indiana, then beating Michigan on Nov. 23.

"Goals?" Barnett said. "Our goals are on the board. Our goals are still reachable."

Ah, but can the Wildcats tackle them?

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