Northwestern's opening day loss to Western Michigan was summed up nicely by Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Turnovers 1-0, difference in the game one point, end of story." Yes, I will clear that up for you momentarily. What he was referring to was one of the more bizarre sequences in a football game that you will ever see. The play cost the Wildcats a shot at taking a late lead, and likely cost them a win.
With 5:38 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cats trailed the Broncos 22-21. They were given excellent field position by way of an out of bounds kickoff, and started the drive at their own 35 yard line. Five plays later, Northwestern found itself with a first and goal at the WMU six yard line. On the next play, Clayton Thorson, NU's sophomore signal caller, took the snap and ran with the ball toward the goal line. Except he never got there. At the one yard line, the ball was knocked out of his hands and rolled into the end zone, and toward the sideline. As the ball was heading out of bounds, a Broncos defender inexplicably dove to try to keep the ball in bounds. He knocked the ball back into the end zone, where two NU players recovered.
The play was ruled a touchback, which gave possession to Western Michigan. The officials ruled that the defender possessed the ball before going out of bounds, which made it a dead ball once he did. That negated the Northwestern recovery, and a possible touchdown.
So after all of that, WMU got the ball back with 2:54 on the clock, and the one point lead intact. Although they had two timeouts remaining, the NU defense couldn't get the stops necessary for one more shot on offense. Time ran out, and Western Michigan left Evanston with an upset road victory.
The end of the game wasn't the only time Northwestern's defense had trouble getting off the field. Western Michigan's offense ran 84 plays (that's a lot), and held the ball for 39 minutes and four seconds. I don't know what the record is for overall time of possession in a game (believe me, I looked), but 39 minutes is a really long time. The only sustained drive on offense for NU was on it's opening possession, which lasted 5:06. That means for the rest of the game, they only held it for 15:50. In the second and third quarters combined, they had the ball for less than seven minutes. WMU had two single drives that lasted longer.
Although two of NU's defensive players denied it, it looked like the defense was completely worn down by the time it needed to make the critical stops. Western Michigan has a strong offense, but almost any offense would be hard to stop after having spent over two full quarters of game time on the field.
In his post game press conference, Fitzgerald said that time of possession and turnovers have contributed to the team's last four losses. Both were on display in the loss to Western Michigan. But he doesn't see this as a season defining loss. "We've got a lot of season left...going forward, we're gonna have a Damn good football team."
There was something for the fans to celebrate, even it wasn't a win. Junior RB Justin Jackson, who scored only five touchdowns all of last season, found the end zone three times on Saturday. He moved into a tie for 10th all-time in career rushing touchdowns with those three scores. His 103 rushing yards on the day moved him up from 6th place to 4th on the career rushing yards list. His 2,708 career yards leaves him about 1100 short of Darnell Autry for 3rd place.
The Cats will look to rebound at home next week against the Illinois State Redbirds. That game will begin at 2:30 p.m., and will be shown on The Big Ten Network.
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