Football: Northwestern scores late, fends off Rutgers’ upset attempt to win

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Football: Northwestern scores late, fends off Rutgers’ upset attempt to win

Quarterback Clayton Thorson signals to a receiver during Northwestern's game at Rutgers on Saturday. Thorson and the offense struggled, but a late score lifted the Wildcats to an 18-15 win.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson signals to a receiver during Northwestern's game at Rutgers on Saturday. Thorson and the offense struggled, but a late score lifted the Wildcats to an 18-15 win.

Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

Quarterback Clayton Thorson signals to a receiver during Northwestern's game at Rutgers on Saturday. Thorson and the offense struggled, but a late score lifted the Wildcats to an 18-15 win.

Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

Quarterback Clayton Thorson signals to a receiver during Northwestern's game at Rutgers on Saturday. Thorson and the offense struggled, but a late score lifted the Wildcats to an 18-15 win.

Ella Brockway, Reporter

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — On an afternoon when almost everything seemed to go wrong for Northwestern – the offense had little success in the air, the run game was missing its two most experienced rushers and the defense allowed the country’s worst scoring offense to build a halftime lead – it took until the fourth quarter for something to finally go right.

For the second week in a row, the Wildcats (4-3, 4-1 Big Ten) came up with a late touchdown drive to ward off an upset from one of the bottom teams in the Big Ten. Freshman Isaiah Bowser’s 5-yard run with just over eight minutes to play gave NU a lead it wouldn’t squander, and the Cats pulled out an 18-15 win over Rutgers (1-7, 0-5) on Saturday.

“The bottom line is to win (and) our guys just have that singleness of purpose,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It was not our A-game by any stretch of the imagination in all three phases, but we found a way to get it done.”

Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson struggled – his 17-for-34, 150-yard showing was his worst of the season – but the issues in the air were remedied by key defensive stops and a strong performance from Bowser, who finished with 24 carries for 108 yards.

It was Bowser who started the day on a positive note for the Cats, scoring the first touchdown of his career on a 3-yard run to put NU up 7-0 early in the first quarter. The Cats dominated the opening frame, holding Rutgers to 2.2 average yards per play, while Thorson went 6-for-6 for 37 yards on the other end.

That quickly fell apart. The Scarlet Knights had 88 yards of offense to the Cats’ 25 in the second quarter, and scored twice to take a lead as NU struggled to move the ball downfield. An 11-yard sack-turned-safety near the end of the second quarter gave Rutgers a 12-7 advantage heading into the break.

“(Rutgers) was playing really hard,” Thorson said. “Those guys up front, their D-line, I thought played really well and in the back end, they were getting hands on our guys. If I put the ball on a few guys, (if) we had a few catches, it’s a different story.”

The struggles continued to start the third. Thorson was sacked again and fumbled at midfield on NU’s first drive of the half, and Rutgers scored a field goal on the ensuing possession to increase its lead.

But NU’s run game began to find its rhythm after a 71-yard drive — the game’s longest — that culminated in a Drew Luckenbaugh field goal with five minutes left in the third.

In the fourth quarter, NU stopped the Scarlet Knights’ advances, holding them to less than three minutes of possession and just two plays for gain. Meanwhile, the offense finally found its groove and took the lead on the 63-yard drive that ended with Bowser’s game-winning touchdown.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this,’” senior defensive end Joe Gaziano said about the fourth quarter. “We were tethering on the edge of making plays … But in the fourth quarter, somebody stepped up and made plays and executed, and we were able to win this game.”

NU held possession for the final six and a half minutes, running down the clock with short-yard carries and quarterback sneaks and holding on to the lead.

What could have been a season-changing loss became a narrow escape and kept the Cats at the top of the Big Ten West standings ahead of next Saturday’s home matchup against No. 23 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1).

“That’s Big Ten football, man,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Win and advance. It doesn’t matter about style points.”

Email: ellabrockway2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ellabrockway

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