UNIVERSITY PARK - Fourth-down attempts and fourth-quarter deficits don't mean the same thing to Bill O'Brien and his Penn State players that they do to other college teams.
Facing fourth down in a crucial situation is adversity - to other teams.
Trailing by 11 points against a ranked opponent entering the fourth quarter is adversity - to other teams.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY?KRETIZER
Penn State’s Zach Zwinak rushes for yardage as Northwestern’s Jared Carpenter tackles. Zwinak had 28 carries for 121 yards in Penn State’s 39-28 win.
Not to this group of Nittany Lions. It's just football to them, because they know all about real adversity.
O'Brien has embraced that notion in his first year as head coach. He doesn't stress over little things, and neither do his players.
The team's remarkable poise has been on display for close to a year now, and Saturday it showed up at the perfect time - the fourth quarter.
"There was no panic," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "We didn't get upset. We didn't press ourselves. We just continued to play our game, and we made some big plays there in the fourth quarter."
The Lions enjoyed a huge final period, scoring 22 points, and roared back for a 39-28 win over No. 24 Northwestern before 95,769 fans on homecoming at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State's fourth straight win was its best of the season, and it showed, as O'Brien pointed out, "There's no quit in that locker room."
It also was by far the most entertaining game of the season, an honest-to-goodness shootout.
"Wow, what a game," linebacker Michael Mauti said.
"Being down like that and our team coming back and rallying, especially in the fourth quarter, was really a special thing," Mauti added.
Penn State appeared to be in big trouble after Northwestern's Venric Mark returned a punt 75 yards for a TD for a 28-17 lead with 50 seconds left in the third quarter. The Lions had gone from being in total control early - the Wildcats didn't even record a first down until the 9:19 mark of the second quarter - to imploding on special teams and letting the game slip away.
That's when O'Brien turned to his not-so-secret weapon, the NASCAR offense.
"I feel very comfortable with the no-huddle," McGloin said. "The whole offense does. We've run it very well."
That's exactly what they did with the game on the line, too, using the no-huddle attack to go on an 82-yard TD drive to close within striking distance, then driving 85 yards on the next series to take the lead.
The Lions had scored 17 points in their first 10 possessions (one closing out the first half), then let their offensive weapons loose with the NASCAR attack in the fourth quarter. O'Brien had been hesitant to go to it because he didn't want quick three-and-outs that would give the ball right back to Northwestern's potent offense.
But with the game on the line, O'Brien started up his engines.
"It was effective," the coach said of the NASCAR offense. "It's been effective pretty much all year."
The offense got the Lions in scoring position, and O'Brien made the key decisions that helped get them in the end zone.
On fourth-and-4 at the Northwestern 6, O'Brien decided to go for it instead of trying a field goal that would have made it 28-20. McGloin, who completed a school-record 35 passes, stepped up in the pocket and hit Allen Robinson in the end zone.
Michael Zordich rumbled in for the two-point conversion to bring the Lions within 28-25 with 9:49 to go.
"We love it," Zordich said of going for it on fourth down, which PSU has done successfully 13 times in 20 tries this season. "It is an attitude kind of play. We want touchdowns. That is what this offense is about. If we need to go for it ... that is what we are going to do."
A 64-yard punt pinned the Lions at their own 15 with 8:15 to go, but McGloin and the offense again used the NASCAR attack to drive right down the field.
Penn State faced another crucial fourth down at the Wildcat 19, this time needing 2 yards, and McGloin converted with a 13-yard pass to Brandon Moseby-Felder.
McGloin fumbled but recovered while scrambling on second down, and on third-and-goal at the 5, he scrambled to his right and did a funky, leaping dive into the end zone for a 32-28 lead.
Former Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark had some fun at McGloin's expense on Twitter when he wrote, "THE WORST! Dive in the end zone I've ever seen LMAOOO.. I luv it tho.. PSU."
Penn State's offense delivered in the clutch all day, converting 5-of-6 fourth-down attempts overall and 10-of-12 third-down attempts in the second half. That came on the heels of converting just 1-of-10 on third down in the first half.
McGloin finished 35-of-51 for 282 yards, two TDs through the air and one on the ground. Robinson caught nine passes for 85 yards and two scores.
Zach Zwinak also had a huge day, rushing for 121 yards on 28 carries and also catching six passes for 52 yards. Zwinak now appears to be the No. 1 choice at tailback.
"We stayed strong in the fourth quarter; I thought that was what helped us," Zwinak said. "We spent so much time in the offseason training because when it comes down to the fourth quarter, we want to be the team who can still go and not show any weakness."
As the Lion offense was taking control, so too was the defense. Northwestern scored 28 points, but one TD came after a muffed punt and the other on Mark's punt return. The Wildcats had 704 yards of offense last week but only 247 Saturday.
"When we get fired up, it gets the offense fired up, too," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "Just going out and playing our ball, they know that they've got to go out there and play their ball, too. We just feed off of each other, and that's what happened today."
Northwestern had one last shot, taking over at its own 25 with 2:37 to go, and the PSU defense shut down the Wildcats. The Lions took over on downs, and Zordich scored from 3 yards out to seal the win.
"That's what this team does well, moving forward and keep fighting," Zordich said.