No pain, no gain for NU

Matt Forman

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald opted to defer the opening kickoff. From that point on, his players deferred opportunities to Indiana.

The Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) played not to lose, and the Hoosiers played to end their five-game losing streak, topping NU on Homecoming, 21-19.

“We didn’t come out and execute,” junior safety Brendan Smith said. “It almost looked like they wanted it more, which should never happen… We beat ourselves.”

As poorly as NU played, it still had a chance in the game’s final minutes, down by two points. With two minutes left, it was field goal or bust.

NU faced the same situation against Indiana (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) a season ago, coming from behind to win 31-28. Only this time, the outcome was different.

After forcing Indiana to punt, the Cats took over at their own 20-yard line with 2:10 remaining on the clock. Senior leaders C.J. Bachér and Tyrell Sutton were sidelined with injuries, and NU’s worst nightmare was realized.

At first, it looked like junior quarterback Mike Kafka could lead NU on a game-winning drive, after he completed a 9-yard pass to senior wide receiver Rasheed Ward. On the ensuing play, Kafka threw 24 yards backward as he was being wrestled to the ground for a sack. The play was ruled a fumble. He proceeded to fumble on the ensuing play as he was hit while looking down field.

The Cats committed five turnovers and forced none. Two turnovers came on Bachér interceptions, and two came on fumbles, one by Sutton and one by sophomore Stephen Simmons on a kickoff return.”At the end of the day, you’ve got to take care of the football,” Fitzgerald said. “You cannot turn the ball over five times and win a Big Ten football game without getting five in return.”

Sutton left the game midway through the third quarter when he suffered a wrist injury. The senior running back, who is second in career all-purpose yardage at NU, will have surgery. A timetable has not been set for his return.

Bachér appeared to injure his right hamstring with four minutes remaining in the final quarter. Two plays later, he tossed his second interception, limped off the field and did not return.

Fitzgerald said he would update Bachér’s status Monday at his weekly press conference.

Indiana took a 7-3 lead with four minutes remaining in the first quarter when Ben Chappell hit Damarlo Belcher on a 43-yard touchdown strike. Chappell faked a wide receiver reverse to Tandon Doss and threw deep to Belcher, answering senior kicker Amado Villarreal’s 25-yard field goal. The Hoosiers scored one play after converting a fourth-and-six punting situation into a first down when punter Chris Hagerup rushed for 17 yards on a broken play.

Indiana took the lead for good with 22 seconds remaining in the first half and never gave it back. Senior running back Marcus Thigpen scored on a three-yard touchdown run as part of a seven play, 34-yard drive to put the Hoosiers ahead 14-9.

After a Villarreal 26-yard field goal brought the game within two, Indiana added to its lead with more trickery, taking a page out of NU offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s playbook. Chappell flipped back to receiver Mitchell Evans on the reverse, who fired to Doss for the 30-yard touchdown.

“The big thing was trick plays for them,” junior defensive end Corey Wootton said. “We didn’t do what we were supposed to assignment wise. I think it would be a different ball game if we were able to stop those trick plays.”

The defense surrendered 319 all-purpose yards, fewer than they did in each of the previous conference wins, but could not get off the field when it mattered most. The Hoosiers held the ball for 9:11 in the fourth quarter and had drives aided by two 15-yard personal foul penalties.

NU scored touchdowns on a pair of runs by Sutton and Bachér, but neither could find any consistency. Sutton rushed 27 times for 77 yards (2.9 yards per carry). Bachér completed 21-of-34 passes for 155 yards and zero touchdowns.

Regardless of how his players performed, Fitzgerald said the blame starts with him.

“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to compete today and that’s my fault,” Fitzgerald said. “I like to be challenged. That’s why they call me coach.”