NU lives to see another day (Football)

Matt Baker

Northwestern took a three-point lead into the fourth quarter for the third week in a row.

And for the third straight week, the Wildcats let their opponent steal the lead.

But this time, on Senior Day at Ryan Field, NU fought back.

Down four with 5:34 left, junior quarterback C.J. Bacher led the offense 73 yards and fired a three-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Ross Lane to lift the Cats over Indiana, 31-28.

The win makes NU (6-5, 3-4 Big Ten) bowl-eligible, but the Cats will likely need a win over Illinois this week to secure their fourth bowl bid since 2000.

“In these big games … you’re playing for the life of your football team, and you’ve got to make plays,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “And that’s what our guys did today.”

Although NU made the plays when it mattered, it was the Hoosiers (6-5, 2-5) who began the game strong, returning a first-quarter kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown after NU took a 3-0 lead.

Those three points, on a 29-yard field goal by junior Amado Villarreal, were the only thing the Cats had to show for its four drives, all of which went inside Hoosiers territory. The other trips ended on a 31-yard missed field goal and two interceptions by Bacher – including one in the end zone.

But down 14-3 in the second quarter, it was NU’s turn to convert a key turnover. Senior linebacker Eddie Simpson picked off backup quarterback Ben Chappell and sprinted 41 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to four at halftime.

“As soon as they called the play, I turned around to myself and said, ‘Just catch it, just catch it,'” Simpson said. “And sure enough, he threw it right to me, and luckily I was fast enough to get there.”

It looked as if the Hoosiers would extend their lead coming out of the locker room when quarterback Kellen Lewis hit wide receiver Ray Fisher on a 70-yard touchdown pass. But referees reversed the call after an official review because Lewis’ foot crossed the line of scrimmage.

The Cats capitalized on the mistake. Junior running back Tyrell Sutton capped off a 45-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run to put NU ahead. Sutton finished with a season-high 141 rushing yards on 33 carries.

NU extended the lead when senior running back Brandon Roberson took a handoff, found senior wide receiver Kim Thompson open in the end zone and lobbed a pass over Indiana cornerback Tracy Porter’s head for a 15-yard score.

“I knew I was going to be wide-open right when I turned around, and I was like, ‘Come on, throw it, throw it,'” Thompson said. “He was holding it, and I’m like, ‘Come on, what are you waiting for?’ I knew (Porter) was going to get back and make a good play on the ball, and luckily he tipped it pretty much into my hands.”

The Hoosiers struck back at the end of the quarter with an 11-yard pass from Lewis to wide receiver James Hardy to make the score 24-21 – and give the Cats a three-point lead going into the final period for the third straight week.

The last 15 minutes started like the collapses against Purdue and Iowa. Bacher threw an interception in the end zone on NU’s first drive of the quarter, and Indiana went on an 80-yard drive capped off with a five-yard touchdown pass from Lewis to Hardy to give the Hoosiers a 28-24 lead with 5:34 left.

But Bacher and the Cats weren’t through.

“We struggled these last couple weeks in the fourth quarter,” Bacher said. “When we got our opportunity, it was kind of like, ‘Let’s go now. Enough waiting around.'”

The offense drove 73 yards in 12 plays – nine rushes, three passes – and Bacher found Lane wide open just past the goal line to give NU the lead with 44 seconds left in the game.

Indiana had a chance to steal the win, but senior defensive end David Ngene sacked Lewis in NU territory and knocked the ball loose. Senior linebacker Adam Kadela pounced on the fumble to seal the game.

Although the Cats are not guaranteed postseason play, senior left tackle Dylan Thiry said Saturday’s win makes this week’s game at in-state rival Illinois even more important.

“We’re playing for something in November,” Thiry said, “And that’s all we could ask for.”

Reach Matt Baker at [email protected]