Wildcats fumble upset bid (Football)

Matt Baker

After jumping out to a nine-point lead and holding the Big Ten’s leading rusher to 30 yards in the first half, Northwestern looked ready to pull out its first conference win of the season against Michigan.

But the team that prides itself on strong second-half performances stuttered in the final 30 minutes Saturday at Ryan Field.

Junior quarterback C.J. Bachér committed turnovers on all four of NU’s fourth-quarter drives as Michigan scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to hand NU its third straight loss, 28-16.

“We always harp on the finish,” senior left tackle Dylan Thiry said. “Get it to the third or the fourth quarter because we know we’ve been able to pull things out in the end when we needed to, to make plays when we needed to. But we just made turnovers. We didn’t give ourselves a chance toward the end.”

After being outscored 42-14 in the first quarter over the last three games, NU (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) exploded on offense on the first play from scrimmage against the Wolverines (3-2, 2-0). Junior wide receiver Rasheed Ward broke a tackle to turn a 9-yard slant into a 64-yard gain, but the Cats failed to pick up another first down and had to settle for a field goal by Amado Villarreal. NU has lost all three games when they failed to score a touchdown on the opening drive.

After sitting out the last two games with a knee injury, Michigan quarterback Chad Henne responded by leading the Wolverines on an 11-play, 65-yard drive capped off by an 11-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham.

The Cats regained the lead on a 49-yard touchdown run by junior running back Omar Conteh, who started in place of the injured Tyrell Sutton for the second straight game.

“It was supposed to be a play up the middle, and I just made a cut to the outside and it was just there,” said Conteh, who led NU with 119 yards on 15 carries. “I just kept running.”

NU took the ball past midfield four times in the second quarter but came away with only two Villarreal field goals to take a 16-7 halftime lead. Bachér was 3 of 9 with an interception in Michigan territory in the quarter.

The Wolverines pulled within two midway through the third quarter when Henne found Carson Butler open on a 5-yard touchdown pass.

And then came the Cats’ collapse.

Michigan’s Brandon Graham hit Bachér’s throwing arm and knocked the ball loose in NU’s first possession of the fourth quarter. The Wolverines recovered, and Henne threw his third touchdown pass three plays later to give Michigan a 21-16 lead.

On the next series, Wolverine blitzers blindsided Bachér and knocked the ball to Tim Jamison, who picked off the ball in the air and ran it to the NU 21.

Michigan missed a 39-yard field goal, but Bachér threw his third interception of the day three plays later when the ball bounced out of Ward’s hands and into defensive back Obi Ezeh’s chest.

Hart scored on a 1-yard run three plays later to put the Wolverines up two scores.

“It looks like we got beat, from what I saw,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the pass protection. “Usually it comes back to communication – we checked the line call or maybe we didn’t see something, a breakdown in fundamentals or technique. Like I said, you’ve got to give them credit. They made plays when it was there.”

Down 12 with fever than 5:00 to play, Bachér tried to lead the Cats on one final drive. But he was sacked twice in three plays and fumbled on third down to seal NU’s loss. Bachér was 3 of 9 in the fourth quarter. He finished the game 22 of 42 for 289 yards and threw zero touchdown passes for the third straight week.

A team spokesman said Bachér was in the training room after the game and unavailable for comment.

“I think (the turnovers) weren’t all on C.J.,” Thiry said. “I think he was getting pressured, and he had to get rid of the ball. A couple of them he got hit on it feels like we should have given him just a little bit more time … so I do not feel that C.J. had five turnovers today.”

The Wolverines sacked Bachér four times Saturday – one fewer than NU’s defense has recorded through the first five games. The quarterback’s five turnovers were as many as the Cats’ defense has forced this season – a trend Fitzgerald said NU needs to correct when the Cats travel to Michigan State on Saturday.

“I’ve been saying that all year, but those come in bunches,” Fitzgerald said. “And obviously we ended up on the short end today.”

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