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Football: FCS team Illinois State stuns sputtering Northwestern with last-second field goal

Clayton+Thorson+prepares+to+take+a+hit+from+Illinois+State+defenders.+The+sophomore+quarterback+completed+just+17-of-41+pass+attempts+in+the+Wildcats%27+9-7+loss.
Clayton Thorson prepares to take a hit from Illinois State defenders. The sophomore quarterback completed just 17-of-41 pass attempts in the Wildcats' 9-7 loss.

Clayton Thorson prepares to take a hit from Illinois State defenders. The sophomore quarterback completed just 17-of-41 pass attempts in the Wildcats' 9-7 loss.

Zack Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Zack Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Clayton Thorson prepares to take a hit from Illinois State defenders. The sophomore quarterback completed just 17-of-41 pass attempts in the Wildcats' 9-7 loss.

Max Schuman, Sports Editor

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Football is a game of inches, and a struggling Northwestern team found that out the hard way Saturday.

The Wildcats (0-2) lost on a last-second 33-yard field goal from Illinois State kicker Sean Slattery that hit off the left upright and caromed through the goalposts to give the Redbirds (2-0) the 9-7 upset victory.

Illinois State quarterback Jake Kolbe was 7-for-7 on the game’s final drive, picking apart NU’s defense and leading the Redbirds down the field late for the game-winning score in the program’s first ever victory over a Big Ten team.

“Our hallmark around here is that we typically win close games because we make plays down the stretch,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Right now, that isn’t happening.”

Both teams struggled to get in a rhythm offensively for much of the day, as the first points for either team came on a six-yard touchdown run by Illinois State running back George Moreira with 32 seconds left in the first half. After a missed extra point, the Redbirds went into halftime leading 6-0.

The Cats attempted to get things going by leaning heavily on sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who threw a career-high 41 times for 191 yards. The rushing attack, usually NU’s hallmark offensively, couldn’t get any traction against an undersized Illinois State defensive line, as junior running back Justin Jackson had just 11 carries for 39 yards before exiting in the fourth quarter with a lower-body injury.

Of the few scoring chances the Cats had, many went by the wayside thanks to a litany of offensive miscues. Senior kicker Jack Mitchell missed his lone field goal attempt, the offensive line struggled with penalties and run- and pass-blocking, and the team converted just 5-of-18 of its third-down attempts.

“I think it was a matter of putting together drives and finishing better,” senior receiver Austin Carr said. “Self-inflicted wounds really got to us.”

NU’s defense made a few timely big plays to keep the Cats in the game while the offense sputtered. Sophomore cornerback Montre Hartage grabbed an interception in the end zone in the second quarter to keep Illinois State off the board, while sophomore safety Jared McGee snagged his own pick on a deep throw in the third quarter for NU’s first two takeaways of the season.

With the Cats still down 6-0 in the fourth quarter, Thorson fired a 10-yard touchdown pass to Carr on fourth-down to take the lead following the extra point, 7-6. Carr was one of the lone bright spots for the offense, grabbing a career-high seven catches for 73 yards and the go-ahead score with 9:10 remaining.

Junior linebacker Anthony Walker, who had seven tackles on the day, said the defense needed to make one more play at the end of the game to escape with the win.

“[The offense] gave us the lead, 7-6,” he said. “We’ll take it, any day of the week, against anybody.”

But with 3:11 remaining, the Redbirds got the ball at their own 13-yard line and marched down the field, setting up Slattery’s game-winning attempt that banked in with time expired in the game.

After NU’s loss that went down to the wire against Western Michigan last week and another close defeat against an FCS team, both at home, a Cats squad that had high aspirations going into the season now must face some troubling questions with conference play looming. However, Fitzgerald said he isn’t thinking that far ahead.

“We’ve got to find a way to win,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not worried about the season right now. We’ve got to find a way to make plays.”

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