The Northwestern Wildcats lost in a heartbreaker to the Western Michigan Broncos as they quite literally let the season opener slip through their hands.
Down by one with less than five minutes to go and the ball, Clayton Thorson failed to finish off an otherwise spectacular 65-yard drive when he had the ball stripped from him on the goal line and Northwestern dropped their first game of the year to fall to 0-1.
The offense came out on their first drive just the way they drew it up, with balance and execution. Thorson went 5-8 for 54 yards and Justin Jackson finished off the drive with his first of three touchdowns of the day to put the Wildcats up 7-0.
But Northwestern’s defense struggled more than most expected heading into the season, as they gave up 416 total yards and allowed Western Michigan to convert on seven of 17 3rd down conversions and a perfect four for four on 4th downs. The Wildcats’ failure to get off the field on third and fourth down led to being nearly doubled for the game in time of possession and wearing down their defense. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald saw some of these trends dating back to their big losses last season.
“Time of possession, line of scrimmage, turnovers. Our last four losses. Same thing.”
The defensive line struggled all day with Western’s offensive front, as quarterback Zach Terrell had plenty of time to throw his 36 passes for 218 yards while only being sacked once (Terrell added 48 yards on the ground). They also gave up 105 yards and a touchdown to running back Jamuauri Bogan.
After that first offensive drive of the game by Northwestern, the Broncos went on to score 13 unanswered points before Jackson broke off a 46-yard touchdown run with 7:39 left in the 3rd quarter to put Northwestern back into the lead 14-13 before Butch Hampton’s third field goal of the game put Western back up 16-14 heading into the 4th quarter.
A 37-yard pass from Thorson to Jackson took Northwestern down to the 1-yard line and Jackson ran it in to put them back up 20-14, but their two-point conversion was called back because of a penalty and they had to settle for an extra point, a point that would prove costly at the end of the game.
But Northwestern’s defense was on their heels and off-balance all day as they allowed another clock-devouring 12-play, 74 yard drive, leading to a touchdown run by Bogan which would turn out to be the game-winning score.
Northwestern’s final offensive drive of the game was the best they looked and moved as a unit since their opening possession. First with a 29-yard pass to Austin Carr which took them down to the 32, followed by a 14-yard pass to Garrett Dickerson down to the 18 and then a 12-yard run by Jackson to the 6. Everything was working right up until the point Thorson turned the ball over and sealed the win for Western Michigan.
This was not the defense Northwestern fans might remember from a year ago. Western Michigan won the time of possession battle 39:04 to 20:56 and Northwestern didn’t force a single turnover, something the coaching staff stresses every day in practice.
“(We) can’t go through a game with the amount of experience we have on defense without a turnover”, said Fitzgerald. “So a lot of work to do, obviously.”
This is night and day from the team we saw emerge from week one last season, victorious as underdogs over Stanford.
“The big thing we’re gonna focus on is responding”, said defensive back Godwin Iwebuike, who had a career high four quarterback hurries. “Responding to adversity. We’re facing it a lot earlier in the season. This is not what we felt last year.”
Not to be overlooked in the doom and gloom of their opening week loss was the performance of Jackson, who ran the ball for 129 yards with three touchdowns. To put the game he had in perspective, last season it took until their 11th game for Jackson to score his third touchdown of the entire season. This was the first three-touchdown game of Jackson’s career, who also moved into 4th place all time at Northwestern in career rushing yards.
As much as we looked forward to seeing what Thorson would look like in his second year in the system, we really didn’t get a fair look, finishing the game with 196 yards. He was complimentary to the offensive line in his post game comments, but the three sacks they gave up beg to differ. The offense we saw in this game looked a lot like the one we remember from last year, resting on Jackson’s legs to carry them.
The most noticeable difference was in the defense. This is not the dominant group from a season ago, which consistently held teams on third down, got off the field and created turnovers for their offense. It’s difficult to really see what kind of offense Northwestern has when they only have possession for a third of the game.
Nobody is hitting the panic button, but if this is a taste of the best Northwestern has to offer this season, then things are going to get really grim when they face that tough October conference schedule. For now, they’ll try to stick to their “1-0 every week” mantra and hope they can grow from this loss.
“I’m not really worried,” Igwebuike said after the game. “I believe in us and our team and I think we’re gonna bounce back better than ever.”
That chance will come next Saturday at home against Illinois State.