Football: Three-play meltdown kills Northwestern’s comeback hopes


Zack Laurence/Daily Senior Staffer

Clayton Thorson runs from defenders. The sophomore quarterback fumbled early in the fourth quarter, essentially sealing the win for Wisconsin on Saturday.

Ben Pope, Reporter

The final score doesn’t show it, but Northwestern entered the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game with a very realistic chance to take down — or at least take the lead on — No. 8 Wisconsin.

A 32-yard catch and run by senior receiver Austin Carr had electrified the home crowd of 42,016, setting the Wildcats up with the ball well into Badgers territory while trailing only 13-7. As DJ Cool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” reverberated through Ryan Field during the end-of-third-quarter break, NU’s hopes of a season-defining upset were growing.

“I felt like we got some juice then; I felt that swung the momentum a little bit,” Carr said. “I saw Coach Fitz yelling like a maniac. He was full of energy, joy. It was a lot of fun.”

Then drive collapsed.

On first-and-10 at the 19-yard line, senior offensive lineman Eric Olson committed a holding penalty — which coach Pat Fitzgerald later called a “mental error” — to back up NU to the 29.

Following an incomplete pass and a one-yard loss on a rush by junior running back Justin Jackson, the Cats were in a bind, all their offensive momentum suddenly stifled by the Badgers’ suffocating defense and a few untimely mistakes of their own.

As sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson rolled out to try to escape a heavy pass rush on third-and-21, he knew that any more lost yards would force NU out of field goal range, but no one was open downfield. So he brought back his arm and tried to throw the ball forward — just to get the incompletion — as Wisconsin defenders Garret Dooley and Conor Sheehy caught up to him.

It didn’t work.

“I probably should’ve just kept it there,” Thorson said in retrospect.

The ball was batted out of his grasp before it began traveling forward, and Wisconsin linebacker D’Cota Dixon picked up the resulting fumble and returned it 22 yards in the other direction.

In just 1:19, the game had shifted from a Wildcats first down at the Wisconsin 19 to a Wisconsin first down at the NU 45.

“We still had a chance going into the fourth quarter against the number eight ranked team in the country, and (then) we self-inflicted wounds: a critical error on the penalty and then really a decision that I think Clayton would love to have back,” Fitzgerald said. “Take the sack, play field position and let’s go live another day.”

Four minutes and nine plays later, Wisconsin cashed in on their advantageous field position with a touchdown to extend their lead to 21-7, essentially putting the game out of reach.

By then, only “On Wisconsin” chants — and none of the buzz from Carr’s big play and NU’s briefly validated comeback hopes — filled the stadium.

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