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Football: Northwestern starts slow, pulls away in 31-20 win over Nevada

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Clayton Thorson carries the ball. The junior quarterback tossed for 352 yards in Northwestern's win over Nevada on Saturday.

Clayton Thorson carries the ball. The junior quarterback tossed for 352 yards in Northwestern's win over Nevada on Saturday.

Jacob Swan/Daily Senior Staffer

Jacob Swan/Daily Senior Staffer

Clayton Thorson carries the ball. The junior quarterback tossed for 352 yards in Northwestern's win over Nevada on Saturday.

Cole Paxton, Copy Chief

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Northwestern went eight months between last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and Saturday’s season opener against Nevada.

The Wildcats (1-0) then needed most of 60 minutes against the Wolf Pack (0-1) to assert themselves.

NU started slowly, pulled even in the second half and finally took the lead late in the fourth quarter to secure a 31-20 season-opening win in front of an announced crowd of 33,018 at Ryan Field.

“This was by far (not) a work of art,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But to go in the locker room down two (scores) and go back in the locker room up two scores shows a great response and a great resiliency by our guys.”

Sophomore wide receiver Ben Skowronek was the star of the go-ahead fourth-quarter drive, hauling in receptions of 26 and 15 yards before junior quarterback Clayton Thorson dove for a one-yard score with 5:28 remaining to give the Cats an edge they would not relinquish.

Skowronek finished with eight catches for 123 yards, both career highs. Thorson, for his part, tied a career high with 352 passing yards and accounted for four total touchdowns, two passing and two rushing — the second of which was an insurance one-yard score with 52 seconds to play.

“I love it,” Thorson said of his sneaks. “Everyone does all the work, we get down to the one-yard line and I punch it in. You keep your feet moving, and it works out.”

Those offensive numbers belied much of the game, however. NU scored just once before halftime and trailed 17-7 at the break, then slowed after a strong third quarter and had to play from behind again in the fourth.

Several of the Cats’ mistakes were self-inflicted. Freshman kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed a 21-yard field goal in the second quarter, Skowronek fumbled on the Nevada 10-yard line shortly thereafter, and Thorson overthrew junior wide receiver Jalen Brown on fourth down inside the Nevada 30 in the fourth quarter.

Plus, Thorson threw an interception deep in NU territory that helped give Nevada the lead early in the fourth quarter, and the Cats committed eight penalties for 90 yards — a tally Fitzgerald called “unacceptable.”

“We just have to move on from those things,” Thorson said. “Our offense did a great job of that, which was really impressive to me. In the second half, we were able to put together drives and finish drives.”

Those second-half drives were in sharp contrast to the first half, when NU’s lone score came on a short field after junior running back Auston Anderson recovered a fumble on a punt return. NU was far from sharp in the early going on the defensive side as well, giving up 17 straight points and allowing Nevada to convert 5-of-8 third down attempts.

Fitzgerald and several players attributed the slow start to unfamiliarity with the Wolf Pack, who have a new coaching staff, and an opening week in which a handful of highly touted teams struggled early.

“As we saw in college football this first week, a lot of the first halves were the same,” senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster said. “We saw a lot of new things. On defense, the offense showed us some looks that we had not practiced.”

Still, the Cats avoided the early-season struggles that beset them last season, when they lost to Western Michigan in their opener.

“I’m fired up about the win. A year ago at this time, we ended up on the short end in a game we maybe didn’t start the right way,” Fitzgerald said. “The way that our guys worked this offseason showed up in the second half.”

Email: colepaxton2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ckpaxton

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