Football: Wildcats battle through injuries, survive scare by Ball State


Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Justin Jackson dashes past a pack of Ball State defenders. The sophomore running back set a career high with 184 yards on the ground Saturday.

Claire Hansen, Reporter

No. 17 Northwestern (4-0) avoided a major upset by Ball State (2-2) Saturday night at Ryan Field to remain perfect as the team heads into conference play.

The Wildcats battled back from a trio of early turnovers and a 10-7 deficit at halftime, scoring 17 points in the third quarter to edge Ball State 24-19.

“I knew this game would be harder than maybe people outside of this building thought,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It was a hard fought victory, but we’ll take it.”

The first half was a series of wounds and woes for the Cats, characterized by inconsistent play on both sides of the football.

NU was struck by a series of unfortunate—and, in some cases, scary—injuries in the first quarter.

Sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike, senior offensive lineman Geoff Mogus and sophomore safety Kyle Queiro were all ruled out for the rest of the game shortly after being taken off the field. Igwebuike exited the game after an undisclosed upper body injury, while his replacement Quiero suffered a broken arm and Mogus left the field after sustaining a head injury. Mogus’ departure left just two first team offensive lineman in the game as senior Matt Frazier and junior Adam DePietro were ruled out for the game earlier in the week.

Sophomore superback Garret Dickerson and senior defensive tackle C.J. Robbins were also taken out of the game in the first quarter, but returned in the second.

Amidst all the injuries, redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson’s play was inconsistent at best in the first half, with the quarterback making a sloppy start similar to the opening half of the Duke matchup.

Thorson was 5-9 at halftime, notching a cringe-worthy interception on a long ball intended for senior receiver Miles Shuler. And while Thorson recorded 36 rushing yards, he tallied a pair of fumbles on those runs, the second of which was a red zone fumble that Ball State was able to capitalize on right before halftime.

Thorson’s poise did emerge, however, on a crisp, down-the-middle pass to senior superback Dan Vitale, who ran it into the end zone for a 66-yard touchdown halfway through the second quarter.

The Cats defense, the backbone of the team thus far this season, was unreliable. NU had trouble containing Ball State quarterback Riley Neal on the run, allowing him 45 yards rushing.

Problematic, also, was the pass coverage, exemplified by a 33-yard Ball State reception into double coverage during the first quarter.

But NU’s defense did make three third-down stops to force a triplet of field goals, two of which were no good. Even with that fortune, after thirty minutes of sloppy and slow play NU headed into the locker room trailing the Cardinals by 3.

When they emerged for the second half, the Cats made it clear that they had shaken the sloppiness, beginning with a series of connections between Thorson and his receivers resulting in an eight play, 80-yard touchdown drive.

Thorson threw another touchdown pass little over three minutes later to cap off a second 80-yard march down the field.

Thorson displayed none of the hurried and unpredictable play evident in the first half, instead appearing poised and completing passes with efficiency.

“He just trusted himself and just took what the defense gave him. He’s handled the ebb and flow very, very well,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a process at quarterback. That’s, to me, a young man that’s growing, growing into the position and understanding the significance of his role.

Sophomore running back Justin Jackson also had a standout second half, rushing for 128 yards in the final two quarters, including a third-quarter, 62-yard run setting up a field goal for the Cats.

Jackson finished with a career high 184 yards rushing on 33 carries.

NU defense perked up in the second half as well, forcing a string of three-and-outs and holding Ball State to a touchdown and a field goal in the third and fourth quarters, respectively.

After Ball State’s fourth quarter field goal made it a one-possession game, sophomore running back Solomon Vault made a 14-yard run in the final minutes, securing a first down and all but guaranteeing NU a 24-19 win.

Yet despite NU’s stronger second half performance, the Cats still had trouble on defense, struggling to contain Ball State receiver Jordan Williams who finished with 133 yards receiving and both of Ball State’s passing touchdowns.

Saturday’s win capped off a series of four non-conference games and the Cats remain perfect as they begin conference play next week.

“Obviously our maturity is showing,” Vitale said. “Last year or maybe the year before that, we might not have won a game like this, so we’re finding ways to win, which is what you need to do in Big Ten play.”

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Twitter: @clairechansen