Football: Northwestern dominates both sides of the ball, routs Illinois State 37-3

Colin Becht

EVANSTON — Northwestern, playing in its home opener, took the field to fireworks and a bang. The Wildcats, like those fireworks, exploded out of the gates in their first offensive possession, taking an early lead.

Unlike the initial fireworks, these offensive firecrackers didn’t stop.

NU (2-0) routed Football Championship Subdivision opponent Illinois State (1-1) 37-3, executing in the areas where they had not in their season opener against Vanderbilt.

Sophomore running back Arby Fields proved the Cats could indeed run the ball, amassing 96 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown.

“Arby ran with some attitude,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We wanted to be able to establish the run early, and I thought we were able to achieve that pretty successfully.”

Fields anchored NU’s committee of running backs that combined for 150 yards on 43 rushes.

Junior quarterback Dan Persa, making his second career start, followed up his star-caliber performance against Vanderbilt with another stellar outing. Relying less on his running ability, Persa completed 19-of-23 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. He added a third touchdown with a one-yard keeper in the first quarter.

Over his first two games this season, Persa has been a symbol of efficiency. He has completed 38-of-44 passes, good for an 86.4 completion percentage.

“He’s off to a pretty fast start and he’s playing really well right now,” Fitzgerald said. “He has such a solid foundation and grasp of what we are trying to accomplish offensively.”

Junior superback Drake Dunsmore solidified his position as Persa’s favorite red zone target, catching touchdown passes in the first and second quarters.

“He causes matchup problems because he is so big and so fast,” Persa said. “He’s a great player in the red zone and he makes big catches.”

Dunsmore led all NU receivers with five receptions on 30 yards.

Crucial to the offense’s success was its no-huddle game plan, often allowing Persa get plays off before Illinois State had time to set.

“It was a little tough to get used to the pace,” Illinois State linebacker Austin Davis said. “It was kind of rapid fire. I don’t know about the other guys but I was a little winded at some times.”

The Cats ran this fast-paced offense to perfection on their opening drive marching 89 yards, capped by a four-yard completion from Persa to Dunsmore.

Defensively, NU used its breadth of talent at the defensive line and linebacker positions to help shore up its secondary. The Cats consistently put Illinois State’s quarterbacks under pressure, leading to three sacks and three interceptions. Senior linebacker Quentin Davie hauled in two picks while senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant came up with the third.

“He (Davie) looked good out there,” Persa said. “Maybe we should move him to tight end.”

All three interceptions were set up by quarterback hurries, two by sophomore defensive end Quentin Williams and one by junior defensive end Vince Brown.

The NU defense limited the Redbirds to 263 yards of total offense, including just 171 yards through the air.

“We wanted to play a complete 60-minute game,” Davie said. “Last week we were fired up and then let off the gas. This week we held on the entire game.”

Feeling confident with its 30-3 lead at the half, Northwestern gave the field to many of its younger players.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins saw his first action, taking over for Persa. Although Fitzgerald kept most of the workload off Watkins by running the ball, Watkins did complete two-of-four passes for 31 yards.

“He looked like a guy in his first game,” Fitzgerald said. “I was very encouraged by the way that he played.”

Watkins’ first career completion paired up new NU talent as he hit true freshman Venric Mark on a post route for 21 yards. It was Mark’s first career reception as well.

Freshman wide receiver Rashad Lawrence came up big for his first career reception, hauling in a 50-yard pass, the longest play of the game.

Redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy took over for Fields in the fourth quarter, rushing for 15 yards on seven carries. Trumpy also got his first career touchdown on a one-yard rush to cap off a dominant game for the Cats.

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