For the first time in 46 years, the Wildcats are 4-0.
And yet there were points when Northwestern looked defeated in Saturday’s 16-8 victory over Ohio.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s thoughts were centered on his team getting the win. But he acknowledged that NU did not play its best.
“I’m happy we’re finding a way to win,” Fitzgerald said. “But obviously there is a lot of room for improvement. We just didn’t execute the way we’re capable of… When you don’t play your best, your leaders are challenged.”
Those challenges began to surface once the offense lost one of its key leaders.
Senior running back Tyrell Sutton set up NU’s only touchdown of the afternoon with a 31-yard scamper into Ohio territory in the waning seconds of the first half. Sutton’s burst took the Wildcats down to the Bobcats’ six-yard-line, setting up an Omar Conteh 1-yard touchdown run.
That turned out to be Sutton’s last play for the remainder of the afternoon, as he missed the entire second half with a left leg injury.
Sutton recorded 103 all-purpose yards (76 rushing, 27 receiving) in the first half before limping off the field. The senior running back was seen icing his left hamstring during the second half as he watched from the sidelines.
Without Sutton behind him, the challenges mounted for quarterback C.J. Bacher. The senior completed 18-of-35 passes for 133 yards and four interceptions.
“We weren’t in rhythm,” Bacher said. “You can’t produce if you don’t get in a rhythm.”
Bacher said the Bobcats’ defense played a different scheme than what NU had prepared for. The senior captain also struggled with sprained fingers on his throwing hand, an injury suffered in the first quarter on a passing attempt. Those fingers were wrapped heavily after the game, but Bacher said he would be fine.
Following Sutton’s injury, NU’s offense ran 35 plays for 80 yards, an average of 2.3 yards per snap. The longest play from scrimmage in the second half was a 16-yard run by Conteh, and the Wildcats did not gain a first down in the third quarter.
Bacher’s message to concerned NU fans about the senior leaders’ injuries was simple.
“Tyrell is fine,” he said. “I’m fine. We’re ready for Iowa.”
Fitzgerald, however, did not comment on injuries because no official report had been released.
Each of NU’s first three scoring drives against Ohio (0-4) resulted in field goals. Kicker Amado Villarreal connected on field goals from 33, 46 and 23 yards.
“It’s huge,” Bacher said. “You can put it in the bank when we get down there.”
A year after struggling in the red zone, the Wildcats have been perfect inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this season. NU is tied for first in the nation at 16-for-16 in red zone scoring, with nine touchdowns and seven field goals.
All three trips Saturday resulted in field goals. But the inability of the Wildcats’ offense to put the ball in the end zone did not stop their defense from doing its job.
NU surrendered only four rushing yards on 28 attempts Saturday. The defensive unit forced four fumbles, recorded five sacks and intercepted Ohio quarterback Boo Jackson twice.
“We’re just having a lot of fun,” redshirt freshman cornerback Jordan Mabin said. “Coach (Mike) Hankwitz stresses all the time to go out there, play physical, and have fun. Fly to the ball. Last year we did a little too much thinking, but this year we’re flying around not thinking, just reacting.”
Two weeks after earning a starting job, Mabin totaled seven tackles, with one for a loss, an interception, a pass breakup and a forced fumble.
Fellow redshirt freshman Vince Browne bolstered the defensive line’s pressure-attack, which contained the elusive Jackson.
“He played a great game today, ” senior linebacker Malcolm Arrington said of Browne. “He played balls to the wall and he only knows one speed – fast.”
The Wildcats’ only hiccup on defense came with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter. A linebacker blitz failed to reach Jackson, who found tailback Donte Harden streaking uncovered down the sideline for a 38-yard gain.
Jackson finished the drive by connecting with Andrew Mooney for a 12-yard touchdown. The Bobcats converted a two-point conversion, cutting the Wildcats’ 16-0 lead in half.
While NU’s defense has been dominant, the team will address its offensive struggles in practice throughout the week as it prepares for the first Big Ten test of the season. NU will travel to Iowa (3-1) to face a Hawkeyes team coming off a disheartening 21-20 loss at Pittsburgh.
But the Wildcats’ goal is to control what they can in hopes of continuing their undefeated season.
“The hallmark of a good football team is that they win,” Fitzgerald said. “They find a way to win and that’s what we did.”