Penn State has made some big second-half comebacks to beat Northwestern over the years. Few were as furious, or as dramatic, as the one the Nittany Lions pulled off Saturday.
The Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) scored 22 points in the final 10 minutes, converting a couple of nerve-wracking fourth downs along the way, to overcome an 11-point deficit and beat the No. 24 Wildcats 39-28 in Beaver Stadium.
Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin threw for two touchdowns and ran for the go-ahead score with 2:37 to play. Michael Zordich gave the Nittany Lions some breathing room with a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:30 left.
The Nittany Lions came from behind to defeat Northwestern for the third straight season and collected their second straight double-digit comeback win against the Wildcats in the last two meetings in Beaver Stadium.
"It's just the way we play," McGloin said. "Northwestern always seems to get up early on us, but we just continue to fight, especially here at home. The crowd never gave up on us. We didn't give up on each other."
After finding wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder for 13 yards on a fourth-and-2 on the go-ahead drive, McGloin, who completed a career-high 35 passes, evaded pressure, rolled to his right and half-jumped, half-dived into the end zone.
The Wildcats (5-1, 1-1) had all three timeouts remaining, but Penn State linebacker Mike Hull broke up a pass intended for Kain Colter on fourth down. A breakaway run by Zordich set up his own scoring run, and Penn State had its fourth straight victory.
Northwestern did not record a first down until nearly six minutes into the second quarter and had just 123 yards in the first half, a week after racking up 704 yards of offense in a win over Indiana.
But the Wildcats got one score -- a 2-yard touchdown run by Venric Mark -- shortly after Penn State's Jesse Della Valle muffed a punt at his own 17-yard line and another -- an 11-yard pass from Trevor Siemian to Tony Jones -- shortly after a third-down pass interference penalty against Lions cornerback Stephon Morris.
The Nittany Lions marched 12 plays in 80 yards for a score on their first possession of the second half, with running back Zach Zwinak getting 37 of them, and the last 8 yards on a pass from McGloin to Allen Robinson. Northwestern answered with a long drive of its own, with Colter taking the ball in from 10 yards on an option run.
Northwestern's defense quickly forced a Penn State punt and Mark, who had 188 all-purpose yards, took it 75 yards, most of that up the left sideline, for a touchdown and a 28-17 lead with 50 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Nittany Lions stayed calm, though.
"We were still confident," Penn State tight end Kyle Carter said. "We knew we would still be able to come back as long as we put together drives and played good defense."
Penn State came back again, with McGloin finding Robinson near the back of the end zone for a 6-yard score on fourth down. It was the fourth of five Penn State conversions on six fourth-down attempts Saturday, continuing a season-long trend for the Nittany Lions.
"It's not that hard on a playcaller," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said, "because your third down call's like your second down call. It's a thought-out deal."
Northwestern, which finished with just 247 total yards, missed its chance to go 6-0 for the first time in 50 years. Coach Pat Fitzgerald fell to 0-5 against Penn State.
"We're 5-1, man," Fitzgerald said. "We're a damn good football team."
Notes: Penn State allowed its first two first-half touchdowns of the season. ... The Nittany Lions defeated Northwestern for the sixth straight time. ... Penn State running back Zach Zwinak set a career high in rushing yards for the third straight week with 121 on 28 carries. It was his second straight 100-yard effort. ... The 75-yard punt return for a touchdown by Northwestern's Mark was the first time the Penn State defense had given up a touchdown on a punt return since Florida State's Willie Reed took one back in the 2006 Orange Bowl.