Football: Northwestern collapses again, losing 20-17 to Michigan


Brain Meng/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson hits the ground. Michigan sacked Thorson six times and stifled Northwestern’s offense in a 20-17 comeback victory.

Cole Paxton, Gameday Editor


The equation, once again, had all the components. Northwestern raced out to an early lead, even scoring a touchdown on its opening drive. The offense, after a while, came to a complete, maddening stop. The defense could hold on only so long, until the Ryan Field visitors pulled ahead for good and walked away with a victory.

On Saturday, that meant the Wildcats (1-3, 1-1 Big Ten) turned a 17-0 lead into a 20-17 defeat at the hands of No. 14 Michigan, (4-1, 2-0) heartbreakingly depriving NU of a victory in a game it led until the final four minutes.

Instead of securing a signature win that could’ve neutralized the devastating losses to Duke and Akron, the Cats lost for a third straight time and racked up a paltry 202 total yards of offense.

“We just have to play better in the second half,” senior quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “We come out and play well in the first half, put ourselves in a really good spot, and the second half we just give it all back to them. … That’s a really good team, and they’re going to take advantage of the opportunities you give them.”

The statistics were woeful across the board. Thorson completed three passes after the break. In its first game without running back Jeremy Larkin, NU rushed for 71 yards, excluding sacks. Seven drives ended with punts from the hosts’ own territory.

“Offensively, it just seemed like the plays we made in the first half went oh-fer in the second half,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought Michigan’s front dominated the second half, and that was the difference in the game.”

And yet, the Cats led for 53 consecutive minutes of game time. NU’s defense was stellar in the opening half, allowing only the one score. For most of the second half, the Cats executed their “bend, don’t break” defense to perfection, allowing Michigan to rack up yards but tally just a pair of field goals on drives that ended inside the NU 10-yard line.

That strategy worked to perfection for three-and-a-half quarters. But when the Cats needed a big play in the closing minutes, they couldn’t get one. A dart from Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson landed in tight end Zach Gentry’s hands — not those of cornerback Montre Hartage, who came within inches of the ball — at the NU 6-yard line.

Two plays later, running back Karan Higdon waltzed into the end zone practically untouched, putting the visitors atop the scoreboard for the first and only time.

“Anytime the game is in the hands of the defense, you want to be able to go out there and make that stop to win it,” senior safety Jared McGee said. “(You need) to get a turnover in the red zone or hold them to another field goal. You aren’t able to get that, you lose games.”

So it was, once again, for the Cats, who failed to record a takeaway and had just one sack. Instead of breaking the code that let leads fly away onto Lake Michigan, the hosts fell to defeat once more.

NU will need some new math, and quickly, to avoid failing to reach a bowl game for the first time in four years, because the numbers aren’t pretty: The Cats need five wins in their last eight games just to break even at .500.

“We can’t win games by scoring 10 points. It’s a 60-minute game,” Thorson said. “We’ve got to (get better) ourselves, and shut out the noise.”

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Twitter: @ckpaxton