After beginning the season by scoring 13 second-half points in 4 games, Northwestern football (4-3, 4-1 B1G) has flipped the script: for the second straight week, the Wildcats have overcome a fourth-quarter deficit to secure a Big Ten win. On Saturday, it was the surprise emergence of the rushing attack that was the driver behind an 18-15 victory over Rutgers at HighPoint.com Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey.
After two straight weeks with virtually no running game, Northwestern found an answer in Isaiah Bowser, a true freshman from Sidney, OH. Bowser rushed for 108 yards on 24 carries and scored 2 TDs to pace the Wildcats. Senior Chad Hanaoka added 26 yards on 6 carries and 15 yards on 2 receptions in his first game of the year.
“It feels good,” said Bowser. “Other guys in the locker room are supporting me and saying congratulations and it was a great win.”
Northwestern got on the board early. After a 3-and-out from Rutgers to start the game, Northwestern took over at the Rutgers 43. Combining a short passing game and a successful rushing attack, the Wildcats systematically drove down the field, taking advantage of a pass interference call on the Scarlet Knights along the way. On 2nd & Goal on the Rutgers’ 3, Bowser punched it in for his first career touchdown.
From there, the Northwestern offense disappeared for a long stretch, as has been typical this season. Rutgers was not exactly lighting the house on fire, either. The next six possessions featured six punts from each side before Rutgers was able to knock in a 42-yard field goal to cut the Northwestern lead to 7-3. Then, on their next possession, Rutgers RB Isiah Pacheco (11 carries, 76 yards, TD) broke through from the Northwestern 44 and took it to the house, putting the Scarlet Knights on top 10-7. Northwestern fans grumbled, realizing that this would be another game where the Wildcats play down to the level of competition against an inferior opponent.
The dread caused by losing a football game to Rutgers intensified 3 possessions later. After an offensive pass interference call on Cameron Green negated a completion to Flynn Nagel and brought Northwestern to their own 11, Clayton Thorson was inexcusably sacked by Willington Previlon in the endzone, securing a safety and a 12-7 lead for Rutgers.
For his part, Thorson (17/34, 150 yards, 1 fumble) has arguably his worst game of the season against the 111th-ranked defense in the FBS. He was pressured often, but missed plenty of throws that Northwestern fans are used to him making, especially in his stellar performances the last two weeks. He will have to be much, much better to give Northwestern a chance to win next week.
Early in the third quarter, Rutgers and Northwestern traded a pair of field goals to make the score 15-10. The Wildcats drove down to the Rutgers’ 12 before running three consecutive running plays for 8 yards, setting up Drew Luckenbaugh’s 23-yarder.
The rest of the third quarter was relatively uneventful, featuring three punts and a Northwestern turnover on downs. With the clock approaching 10 minutes early in the fourth, the Wildcats finally kicked it into another gear. Thorson converted two fourth downs - one on a QB sneak and one on a 10-yard completion to Flynn Nagel — en route to a 5-yard Bowser TD run. Northwestern then extended the lead to 18-15 on a 2-point conversion from Thorson to Nagel (8 receptions, 71 yards).
After the defense forced a 3-and-out, the Northwestern offense was able to rely on their running game. Bowser gained 40 yards on the final possession as the Wildcats ran out the clock to win the game.
Reflecting on the overall performance, Pat Fitzgerald was not impressed but maintained his optimistic attitude. “We made some plays on third downs, but have to play better. That is the bottom line, that is on me. But great team win. It is tough to get wins on the road in the Big Ten and I think we have done it six straight times, so great effort by our team.”
This was an ugly win, but in the context of the season, the method of winning doesn’t matter. Northwestern has already lost to Akron. Northwestern also is in first place in the Big Ten West. Upcoming games against Wisconsin and Iowa will determine whether Northwestern has another middling season, or accomplishes Pat Fitzgerald’s long-sought-after goal of winning the division. What does matter is that Northwestern was able to establish a rushing attack that will be essential to knocking off any of their remaining opponents.