EVANSTON, Illinois — The Penn State Nittany Lions began the difficult finishing stretch of their season. They came nine seconds from a victory and couldn't hold on without one of their stars.
Jack Mitchell's 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left gave the Wildcats a 23-21 win Saturday over the Nittany Lions.
Saquon Barkley ran for 120 yards and had two scores, and the second with 12:22 left gave the Nittany Lions a 21-20 lead after trailing 20-7 at halftime. They had a chance to take more time off the clock but Barkley was stopped short on a third and one at his own 15 with 2:25 to go, giving Northwestern the ball back.
Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions offense struggled, which led to the end of their two-game winning streak. Hackenberg was under pressure for much of the day and went 21 of 40 for 205 yards with an interception.
"We were able to fight back, but at the end of the day they were better than us today," Hackenberg said. "You've got to give them a lot of credit."
Carl Nassib's sack of Zack Oliver with 14:50 left in the game gave him 15½ this season to set a single-season Nittany Lions record. But that moment might have been costly for Penn State because Nassib wasn't on the field for the Wildcats' final drive because of an injury.
"Obviously the guy's leading the country in sacks," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "All-time sack leader in school history. Not having him out there is significant."
Saturday began a tough stretch for Penn State (7-3, 4-2). After playing Northwestern, the Nittany Lions have a bye and then wrap their season with a game at home against Michigan and then visit Michigan State.
They didn't start that stretch successfully.
"We weren't able to play winning football at the end of the game," Franklin said.
Northwestern did, and it got a key contribution from somebody who had struggled earlier.
Even though he had missed two field goals and an extra point, kicker Jack Mitchell still had the confidence of coach Pat Fitzgerald. And Mitchell justified that faith when it mattered the most.
"I've got great confidence in Jack," Fitzgerald said. "I had full confidence he was going to make that kick. He's pretty good."
Northwestern (7-2, 3-2) had to win with Oliver, who had only appeared in three games this year before Saturday. He passed for 111 yards and threw an interception but led Northwestern's key final drive.
Penn State pulled to within 20-14 with 5:04 left in the third when receiver Geno Lewis hit DaeSean Hamilton for a 32-yard score. The drive was aided by a pair of 15-yard penalties, including a roughing the kicker call on a punt against Warren Long that returned the ball to Penn State.