STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Northwestern failed its first big test of the season.
A week after returning to the Top 25 for the first time since 2008, the No. 24 Wildcats wasted an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, allowing three touchdowns in the final 9:49 in a 39-28 loss Saturday to Penn State.
Quarterback Matt McGloin had the go-ahead score on a 5-yard touchdown run with 2:37 left after earlier throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass to Allen Robinson as the receiver dragged along the back line of the end zone.
Michael Zordich had a 2-point conversion run to get Penn State within 28-25 before McGloin's scramble across the front corner of the end zone sent the homecoming weekend crowd into a frenzy.
"It was tough," safety Ibraheim Campbell said about the fourth quarter. "We've just got to find a way to make a play. Guys were out there for a while. The offense was out there the same as us. We've just got to find a way to focus in, make a play and get off the field."
Penn State (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) then stuffed Northwestern's last-gasp drive after Trevor Siemian's pass for Kain Colter was tipped away on fourth down to help hand the Wildcats their first loss of 2012.
Things looked so good for Northwestern (5-1, 1-1) after Venric Mark's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown with 50 seconds left in the third quarter demoralized the blue-and-white faithful for a 28-17 lead.
Mark also ran for a score and finished with 72 yards on 13 carries.
The Wildcats couldn't get to 6-0 for the first time in 50 years. Even worse for Northwestern, the loss continued a disturbing trend of second-half shortfalls against Penn State. The Wildcats had halftime leads in two of the previous three years before falling to the Nittany Lions.
This year, they couldn't hang on to an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter.
"We didn't get their 'B' game today; we got their 'A' game, and we were toe to toe, jaw to jaw with them all the way to the end when we really lost it," Fitzgerald said.
Adding to his reputation as a bold play-caller, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien decided to go for two after Robinson's fourth-quarter score. Zordich rumbled up the middle to get the Nittany Lions within three.
Penn State was an astounding 5 of 6 on fourth-down conversions. Northwestern was a combined 4 of 14 on third- and fourth-down plays.
"That's a recipe for disaster. We're on the field way too long," Fitzgerald said. "Our recipe is exactly what they did for success. We got beat at our own game."
After bending in the middle of the game against Northwestern's high-octane spread, Linebacker U. didn't break in the fourth. Dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter found his running lanes filled with swarming defenders, and defensive backs smothered the receivers.
McGloin struggled at times, too, but bounced back in the clutch. McGloin directed blockers in front of him as he rolled right but couldn't find a receiver. So the savvy senior just scrambled into the front corner of the end zone for the touchdown.
McGloin finished 35 of 51 for 282 yards and two scores. Zack Zwinak ran for 121 yards and a score on 28 carries.
A week after dismantling Indiana for 704 yards of total offense, Northwestern hit a speed bump in Happy Valley. The Wildcats were outgained 443-247 in total offense and 30-14 in first downs.
Yet they still were in a good spot in the third quarter after Colter had a 10-yard scoring run with 3:12 left before Mark's terrific punt return touchdown about two minutes later for a 28-17 lead.
Colter, who had nearly 300 yards of total offense last week, was held to five carriers for 24 yards and three catches for 17 yards.