Overtime, one more time

Tania Ganguli

As far as great closers go, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Eric Gagne has nothing on the Wildcats.

“We were hanging around, and as we’ve all seen, this football team’s pretty good when it hangs around,” Northwestern coach Randy Walker said.

The Cats secured their third overtime win of the season with a 28-21 home victory over Illinois, and after the game the players felt nostalgic, relieved and exhilarated.

Sending the seniors off with a victory over their in-state rivals in their final game at Ryan Field prompted nostalgia.

A narrow escape from a death blow to their bowl hopes meant relief — with one more win the Cats will likely attend the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 31, but they could also end up at the Motor City Bowl or the Sun Bowl.

An overtime thriller in front of 23,563 fans at Ryan Field spurred by a momentum-shifting punt return touchdown by Jeff Backes and a last-second missed field goal by Illinois created exhilaration.

“I’m getting too old for this as well,” said senior running back Noah Herron, who rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns.

Down 21-14 late in the second half as constant penalties prevented NU from developing a rhythm, the Cats knew they needed a momentum shift. Backes didn’t need a reminder — but he got a few anyway.

“Coach Walker said, ‘Hey, we need a big play,’ ” Backes said. “Loren Howard came up to me like, ‘Dude, you need to take it back to the house. Don’t stop running no matter what.’ ”

And he didn’t. Backes took the punt straight up the gut for a 73-yard touchdown return that tied the score at 21-21.

That was the first time in the game the Cats had momentum, but they didn’t have it for long. Illinois running back Pierre Thomas returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to NU’s 30-yard line.

“We had kind of given them a great situation,” Walker said. “We about gift-wrapped this baby.”

With only five seconds left, Illinois freshman Jason Reda sent a 31-yard field goal try wide left.

“I’d be lying if I said our hearts wouldn’t have dropped if that had gone in,” Backes said.

The Cats were confident heading into the extra period because since their Sept. 2 loss to TCU, they had won three straight Big Ten overtime contests at Ryan Field. With Saturday’s win, NU secured its first undefeated home Big Ten record since 1996.

On the first possession of overtime, quarterback Brett Basanez rolled left on third down and tossed the ball to junior receiver Jonathan Fields who slid to catch the game-winning touchdown.

“It took a long time for the ball to get there,” Fields said. “I was just thinking about the drops I had earlier in the quarter. My teammates were like, ‘Don’t get down, you’ll have the chance to redeem yourself.’ “

Basanez had open field in front of him, but said he was focusing more on his receivers downfield.

But senior linebacker John Pickens offered another suggestion.

“Basically he’s too slow to run it himself,” Pickens teased.

Basanez, who had just said how much he loved the senior class, stopped and glared at his roommate for a few seconds before poking fun at Pickens.

“Minus John Pickens,” Basanez said. “It’s hard for our defense to play well with 10 guys out of 11 out there. If we could get a defense without (Pickens) out there, we could make some plays.”

Pickens and lineman Luis Castillo, both senior starters, led a defensive effort that gained momentum as the game progressed.

At halftime the Cats trailed 14-7, in large part because they could not stop Illinois’ rushing attack led by Thomas who racked up 131 yards on 37 carries.

While Illinois secured seven first downs in the first quarter, the Cats’ offense started slowly and did not garner a first down in the first 15 minutes.

Herron broke free for a 23-yard touchdown on the first drive of the second quarter, but Illinois responded with a touchdown of its own. Herron’s touchdown was NU’s lone bright spot of the first half.

“We didn’t have much fire in the first half,” Herron said. “We had a lot of talk, each guy was saying a lot, but we weren’t doing much.”

The game progressed much like many in the seniors’ careers at NU — two tough periods in which they didn’t accomplish much followed by improvement in the final two quarters.

Then the nostalgia set in. Castillo and Pickens played against each other in high school and reflected on their final college home game and the conference season they had finished.

While remembering the season is far from over, Walker took a moment to reflect on the seniors as well.

“This has been a special class. There was a locker room in State College, Pennsylvania, two years ago where we were at about the lowest point you can be as a football team, and we said, ‘We better do something about this,’ ” Walker said of the 2002 game the Cats lost 49-0. “They’ve done more than learn how to win games and how to practice.

“They’ve now embraced a program that they can pass on to the young guys.”

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected].