Offense finally discovers its rhythm

Jake Simpson

A season ago, C.J. Bachér and the Northwestern offense put up 97 points in back-to-back wins against Michigan State and Minnesota on the way to a standout season. The Wildcats have spent most of this year struggling to recapture that spark.

Led by a quartet of seniors, the offense finally clicked against Illinois.

Bachér and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, and Rasheed Ward led a rejuvenated NU attack that dictated the tempo of the game from start to finish, powering the Cats to an easy 27-10 victory.

The offense put up its second-highest point total of the year in a Big Ten game in its final regular-season contest. Afterwards, Lane said the unit was gelling at the best possible time.

“People always say you want to play your best football at the end of the season,” he said. “Tonight we played a really good game.”

From the outset, NU (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) wore down the Illini defense with a patient game plan and a slow but steady passing attack. Bachér led the offense deep into Illinois territory on its first three drives, coming away with two touchdowns and staking the Cats to a 13-0 lead.

The key to NU’s success was its willingness to stick with what Bachér called a “dinking and dunking” philosophy. While the senior signal-caller passed for 162 yards in the first half, he completed just one pass for more than 20 yards, a 22-yard strike off his back foot to Peterman. The rest of Bachér’s completions were underneath the Illinois secondary, as the Cats moved steadily up the field a few yards at a time.

Bachér credited offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s scheme for the early scores.

“We had a great game plan going in,” Bachér said. “I know that the offense really bought into it, and we stuck to it the entire game.”

While running back Stephen Simmons had his most productive game of the season (68 yards rushing and a touchdown), the Cats did most of their damage through the air. Bachér finished with 220 yards passing, 14 of which came on the offense’s biggest play.

Midway through the second quarter, the Cats faced a third-and-seven at the 14-yard line of the Illini (5-7, 3-5). Bachér was flushed from the pocket and scrambled to his right. Weeks ago, Fitzgerald commented on a different Bachér interception: “I’ve been playing football since the second grade, and you don’t throw across your body.” On Saturday, the senior quarterback ignored his coach’s words, lobbing a throw across his body to a wide-open Lane in the back of the end zone.

The ball got to Lane a split second before the Illini defenders did, and the senior receiver hung on to the ball as he was tackled into the goal post.

“After Ross caught that touchdown, he goes: ‘That was fun,'” Fitzgerald said. “And that’s Ross Lane. He’s a very gregarious young man.”

After failing to score in the third quarter, the offense capitalized on junior Brendan Smith’s 52-yard punt return, which gave NU the ball at the Illinois 20. Two plays later, Peterman broke free on a corner post, and Bachér hit him at the goal line for a game-clinching 18-yard touchdown.

The senior gunslinger had ample time to complete his two touchdown passes, as NU’s offensive line kept the Illinois front four away from Bachér all day. The performance of the “Big Uglies” was a fitting end to a stellar regular season for the linemen.

“It’s been a recurring theme in all of our wins this season,” Bachér said. “Our O-line has just been great, and that’s the reason, in my mind, that we have nine wins.”

Bachér used his time in the pocket to find his three senior receivers. Lane, Peterman, and Ward combined for 19 catches, 212 yards, and two touchdowns in their final regular-season game, as they walked off Ryan Field victorious.

“It looked like Ross and Rasheed and Eric probably played their best game collectively of the season,” Fitzgerald said.

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