Notebook: Bates not baited by fake onside, makes acrobatic play

Danny Daly

CHAMPAIGN – If Northwestern fans found out before Saturday’s game No. 7 for the Wildcats would improvise to make a crucial play, few would have been surprised. After all, backup quarterback Dan Persa was impressive during the 25 minutes he played in the win over Iowa, and NU planned to take advantage of his dual-threat abilities against Illinois as well.

But it wasn’t Persa who made a major impact at Memorial Stadium – it was Hunter Bates, who shares Persa’s number and acrobatically recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarter of the Cats’ 21-16 victory.

“It was a surprise onside,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He made a great play. His dad (Bill, who played 15 years for the Dallas Cowboys) was one of the best special teams players in the history of this game. That was Hunter being decisive, and that’s what you have to be in that situation.”

Illinois had just scored its first touchdown but missed the two-point conversion, cutting NU’s lead to 21-9 with 10:11 left. Both teams lined up as if the Illini would boot deep for the ensuing kickoff.

But at the last second, Bates recognized the kick was going to come in his direction.

“I was just doing my job,” he said. “I saw the kicker flatten out and I had to hang in there, so I was just doing what the coaches taught me. When I got up real high, I just tried to hang onto the ball as best I could.”

Bates jumped up to snag it, then was hit in the air and flipped on his way down to the ground. He bounced back up with the ball still securely in his grasp, and the Cats took over at the Illini 40-yard line.

A backup safety, Bates hasn’t seen the field much on defense this year, recording four tackles. The redshirt freshman did play a few snaps Saturday when senior Brad Phillips was briefly sidelined with a hip injury, though.

NU was not able to capitalize on Bates’ recovery and put points on the board. Regardless, it kept Illinois from maintaining possession when momentum was in its favor.

“It was cool, because I only have a limited role on special teams,” Bates said. “To be able to make a big play like that was special.”

It was also a play that made Bates’ father proud.

“He’s already texted me,” Bates said with a smile, less than an hour after the game.

DIFFICULT DAY FOR DEMOSOne week after being named one of the 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award, given to the best kicker in the country, Stefan Demos had his worst game of the season.

The junior missed all three of his field goal attempts against the Illini, pushing 47- and 50-yarders left with the wind at his back and hitting the right upright from 31 yards away. Also the Cats’ punter, Demos’ first boot went only 12 yards and allowed the Illini to start their second drive in NU territory.

Holder Zeke Markshausen said he isn’t concerned that Demos’ performance was anything more than an off-day.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Markshausen said. “I just hold for him, I can’t really tell him if he’s not kicking it correctly. I believe in what he does and who he is as a player. He’ll be fine, he’ll come back.”

Prior to Saturday, Demos had connected on 13-of-15 tries, including game-winners against Eastern Michigan and Indiana. His only two unsuccessful attempts had been blocked.

FIELDS BACK IN THE FOLDNU’s leading rusher against Illinois was someone who had seemingly disappeared for the past month. True freshman tailback Arby Fields carried the ball nine times for 50 yards and a touchdown, after gaining 27 yards on the same amount of touches in the previous four games combined.

Fields provided the Cats with a change of pace, contributing bursts of 12 and 15 yards.

“He’s a little fireplug,” Markshausen said. “We know he’s got it. He’s young, so it’s a matter of us helping it out and saying, ‘Hey, we believe in you – you can do it, just go out there and make those plays.'”

The one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave Fields five scores for the season. The Cats’ other running backs have combined to find the end zone five times on the ground.

Fields’ 266 yards this year is also a team high, and his improvement leading up to Saturday caused Fitzgerald to get him the ball more.

“He had a great week of practice,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s tough to play as a freshman. I look in the mirror, and I was arguably the worst freshman ever to play at Northwestern. It’s just really difficult, and he’s weathered it well.”

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