STATE COLLEGE – The Penn State offense looked on top of its game, and the defense continually flustered Northwestern's volatile running attack.
Alas, the Nittany Lions' special teams play opened doors for the Wildcats.
Two costly Penn State errors – a botched punt return and a failed punt coverage – pushed momentum in the other direction during a 39-28 victory over No. 24 Northwestern.
"We put (the defense) in a tough job with the punt return and some of the things that went on there," coach Bill O'Brien said. "That wasn't on them."
Following a second quarter defensive stop of Northwestern's first possession with a first down, returner Jesse Della Valle flubbed a return at the 17-yard line. Northwestern assumed possession and scored a Venric Mark rushing touchdown three plays later to cut Penn State's lead to three points.
"He was fair catching it," O'Brien said. "He looked up and he looked up with the fair-catch signal and then looked down. He didn't concentrate on the ball. He's done a great job. I have a lot of respect for Jesse and what he's done here. He made a mistake; he'd be the first person to tell you that. Obviously, we recovered from it but right there, it hurt us a little bit."
Della Valle reluctantly admitted the 12-mph wind gusts played a factor in the flub.
Both teams traded leads and stayed relatively within an ear shot of each other before another special teams' miscue broke open an 11-point Wildcat lead that Nittany Lions managed to erase.
Fielding a 54-yard Alex Butterworth punt, Mark evaded the first wave of Penn State players and jetted to a 75-yard return down the sideline.
Butterworth said he punted the ball too far, allowing Mark ample room to eye the coverage and plan his first cut to the left.
"I knew it was a good punt," Butterworth said. "I boomed it out of our coverage zone. I started trailing as soon as he caught it. I was all in front of that kick.
"I mean usually I focus on getting it to the left so our guys have a little more time to get down there. They have a good returner. It's scary."
Michael Mauti, who was on the field, skirted the blame away from Butterworth and toward his fellow coverage mates.
"No such thing as kicking it too far," he countered. "Our guys gotta cover better."
Mark said he expected Penn State to study his return habits and thus he changed course.
"You could tell they did a lot of film study," the Northwest halfback said. "They knew we were going to go right. I knew that they knew we were going to go right, so I went left. There was no one there but a kicker and (Mauti)."
Yielding a return only briefly dampened the mood on the sidelines. Thankfully for the special teams corps, the Nittany Lions recovered to rattle off 22 consecutive points in the fourth quarter.
"Any time there has been a special teams touchdown…there's always a big momentum change when the other team makes a big play on special teams," O'Brien said. "There's a little bit of a quietness on the sidelines."
For all of the special teams' woes, none revolved around kicker Sam Ficken. Ficken moved to 3-for-9 on the season with a 21-yard field goal to supply an early 3-0 lead. He also, shockingly, booted a kickoff between the uprights in what assistant coach John Butler coined "an 80-yard field goal."
The Nittany Lions opened the game with outstanding performances in the punt game. Butterworth pinned the Wildcats on the 1-, 8-, and 15-yard line before Northwestern picked up a first down.
"On those type of punts, I'm trying to get it as deep as possible in their own territory," Butterworth said. "It's a great feeling knowing the defense is able to hold them over and over again."
Each of Butterworth's three punts inside the 20 impeded Northwestern's efforts to run its high-powered offense. As a result, the Wildcats failed to use its highly-successful option attack until the second quarter.
"Football is complimentary," Butler said. "The special teams puts the offense on a short field. It limits what they can do. That's a good offense right there. They can't throw. They can't run their option play. I think we had the ball on our side of the field for the whole first quarter. The punting game compliments our defense."