UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This one felt real. The students screamed on the Northwestern third downs and stayed until the end. A chant for coach Bill O'Brien resonated particularly deep, and the postgame celebration involved no Gatorade shower gimmicks.
Penn State had defeated a ranked team. It had come from behind. After the 39-28 victory against Northwestern Saturday at Beaver Stadium, the players could exhibit a sense of pride they so badly wanted since the interminable month of July.
"This is the most excited I've been for a game in I couldn't tell you how long," quarterback Matt McGloin said.
He had provided the winning touchdown. On a third-and-goal from the 5, facing a three-point deficit, O'Brien called for a pass. Instead, McGloin beat the defense by forgoing the pass and scrambling to his right and running for a touchdown. The ensuing defensive stop sealed the game.
Afterwards, O'Brien was asked about his team's comfort in such circumstances, the "do-or-die" situations as they were termed, because there hadn't been any in a month.
Three weeks of blowouts had improved Penn State's record; yet after each one O'Brien and a few players professed discontentment. They always wanted more.
They complained of leaving points on the board. They complained of not forcing the extra interception or three-and-out. Trailing in the fourth quarter Saturday by 11, the extra stop, the conversion for a score, everything would have mattered.
So, did O'Brien think his team would be comfortable? He answered by pointing out that his team went for it on fourth down six times. It converted on five.
Before McGloin could score the go-ahead touchdown, Penn State had to succeed on one of those fourth downs. The score was 28-17, and the Nittany Lions had the ball on Northwestern's 4.
Many people who never have coached or watched much football know the accepted strategy: Kick the short field goal, make it a one-possession game. Many people are not O'Brien. So, McGloin ended up passing to tightly-covered Allen Robinson, who made a diving catch for a touchdown.
"I have a lot of confidence, even though we haven't always shown it," O'Brien said. "I feel like we have good plays there and I feel like Matt really understands what we're going to do."
That drive began after the lowest point of the game for Penn State. Northwestern's Venric Mark had turned the Lions' special-teams players into statues, returning Alex Butterworth's 54-yard punt for a 75-yard touchdown.
A pall was cast along the sideline -- O'Brien admitted as much. But he also acknowledged that such feelings always occur after big special-teams plays for the opposition.
Cornerback Stephon Morris said the defense wanted to prove itself, in part because it needed to atone for blowing leads earlier in the season.
"We've been down in these situations many times," Morris said. "The main thing is we didn't finish the first two games."
After McGloin's go-ahead touchdown run, Northwestern had two more chances to regain the lead, but Penn State did not allow it to get a first down on either.
The stops provided a fitting conclusion for the defense.
A week ago, Northwestern gained 719 yards against Indiana. By the 12-minute mark of the second quarter against Penn State, the Wildcats had amassed 16 and had been forced into a three-and-out four times. They finished with 247 yards.
For Morris, the victory led him to consider thoughts of how close the Nittany Lions are to being 6-0. Butterworth commended the way they discussed, plotted and then succeeded in the comeback.
O'Brien, usually as open as the White House press secretary, joked around more than he has this season, sharing this thought about McGloin's fourth-quarter touchdown run.
"He's going to come in on Monday and tell me he's a 4.3 40," O'Brien said. "I'm going to tell him we're timing his 40 with a sundial."
Then, he became a little more serious, saying how much he enjoyed coaching competitive guys, and, with that, you had an explanation for why his mood was so positive after the victory.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @mdent05. First Published October 7, 2012 4:00 AM