Football: Come-from-behind Cats revitalize bowl hopes

Danny Daly

Down 28-3 at home against Indiana, Northwestern’s postseason aspirations looked bleak at best. Little did the Ryan Field faithful know, the Wildcats were about to celebrate Homecoming by embarking on the biggest comeback in school history.

NU scored 26 unanswered points to secure a stunning 29-28 win, keeping its bowl hopes alive. The offense rediscovered the deep ball and the running game, while the defense held the Hoosiers to five first downs and 109 yards in the second half.

“That was awesome, wasn’t it?” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “After the long touchdown return, it seemed like we played as good football as we’ve played all year.”

Everything that could go wrong for NU in that first quarter-and-a-half did go wrong.

Fitzgerald chose to defer the opening kickoff, and his defense promptly gave up a 70-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. On third-and-four during the ensuing drive, senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen had a rare drop. Even when the Cats (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) managed to stall the Hoosiers’ offense, the punt was downed at the 1-yard line.

It did not get much better after that, and Indiana (4-4, 1-3) scored on each of its next two possessions. When NU finally got on the board, cutting the deficit to 21-3 on a 28-yard field goal by junior kicker Stefan Demos, Indiana senior Ray Fisher ran back the kickoff 93 yards to give his team a 25-point lead, its biggest since the second game of last season.

Dating back to the second half of the Michigan State loss, the Cats had been outscored 52-10.

But the Hoosiers would not score again. Kafka ran in NU’s first touchdown from one yard out, and Markshausen made an acrobatic grab in the back corner of the end zone seven seconds before halftime to make it a two-score game.

“That was just building and building our momentum we needed to win the game,” sophomore tailback Scott Concannon said. “That was an essential catch.”

The momentum carried over into the second half. Redshirt freshman cornerback Ricky Weina’s blocked punt was recovered by Indiana for a safety, giving the Cats two points and the ball.

Weina filled in for cornerback Sherrick McManis during the second half after the senior captain left the game with an injury. The walk-on was not NU’s only unlikely hero – Concannon gave the best performance by a Cats running back this month. He rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries, making the most of his opportunities in the open field.

The offensive line also played well, limiting Indiana’s star defensive ends, Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, to no sacks and one tackle for a loss. And even though the Hoosiers’ secondary picked off three passes in the second half, the Cats’ defense did not give up any points off of those turnovers.

NU made two crucial fourth-down stops to keep Indiana from putting the game on ice. The first was when the Hoosiers had a fourth-and-goal with two minutes to go in the third quarter and elected to run a play out of its Wildcat formation. Junior wide receiver Mitchell Evans made a dash for the left side of the end zone after the play broke down and tripped over his own blocker, falling two yards short.

“It was a play that we put in this week – it worked all week,” Evans said. “Northwestern just did a good job covering it. (Intended receiver) Troy (Wagner) got held up a little bit. The guy stuck to his hip the whole time, so I just tried to make the most of it, and it was close.”

The defense stepped up again after the Cats closed the gap to two points on an 11-play, 98-yard drive capped off by a touchdown pass to senior wideout Andrew Brewer. Indiana faced fourth-and-three at the fringe of field goal range with just more than seven minutes left. Hoosiers’ coach Bill Lynch called his final timeout – which would come back to haunt him in the end – and quarterback Ben Chappell’s pass to Evans fell incomplete.

Thirteen plays later, Demos connected on a 19-yard field goal from the left hash mark to put the Cats ahead. NU ran the ball three consecutive times inside the red zone, which took about two minutes off the clock, because Indiana did not have any timeouts.

The game was not over yet. Indiana returned the squib kick to its own 40-yard line, and Chappell found sophomore wide receiver Tandon Doss on the sideline in NU territory.

Chappell spiked the ball, and Lynch sent out kicker Nick Freeland to attempt a 59-yard field goal.

“In that situation, you have the wind at your back, and what are the odds of throwing a Hail Mary for a score?” Lynch said. “It was pretty gusty down there. … He hit it pretty good.”

The kick landed a few yards short of the crossbar, allowing the Cats to eke out the one-point win.

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