Football: Skowronek’s game-winning catch will be forever remembered in Northwestern lore


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Ben Skowronek celebrates after a touchdown catch. The touchdown proved to be the defining moment in Northwestern's win at Iowa.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


IOWA CITY, Iowa — For 13 seasons, Pat Fitzgerald has been harping about his goal for Northwestern to win a Big Ten championship.

But the play that sealed his Wildcats’ (6-4, 6-1 Big Ten) first chance to fulfill that dream since 2000 — a 32-yard diving touchdown grab by junior receiver Ben Skowronek after a hopeful heave by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson — was, for a while, a mystery to him.

“I don’t know how he caught the ball. I don’t think anyone in the building thought he caught the ball,” Fitzgerald said. “From my vantage point, I thought it was overthrown. Of course, I couldn’t see because it was blocked. And then he gets up with the ball and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Replay later confirmed the catch, showing Skowronek had kept his arm underneath the nose of the football despite twice bouncing on the ground in nearly spread-eagle position, and NU maintained that lead for the game’s final 11 minutes to upset No. 21 Iowa (6-4, 3-4).

There was one man, at least, who immediately knew it was catch: Skowronek himself. He stood up and celebrated, pointing a single finger to the frigid Iowa City sky, before even the referee raised his two hands to signal what had just occurred.

Though the junior hasn’t followed up his breakout 2017 campaign with an even more productive 2018, his repeatedly impressive ability to win contested balls — whether vertically, per usual with his 6-foot-4 frame, or by stretching out for with his equally long arms — shone through Saturday.

“The defender had inside leverage so I had to fight through him, because the ball was thrown a bit inside, so I could stay inbounds,” he said. “I just pulled myself through and made a play on the ball.”

What Skowronek hadn’t known a dozen seconds prior, though, was that he was the first read on the play.

When he lined up against Hawkeyes cornerback Michael Ojemudia before the snap — and even when reflecting on the catch after the game — Skowronek said he had run deep because of coaching instructions, not because he believed the play was designed for him. He said he had been surprised, in fact, to see the football floating in his direction.

Yet Thorson had other ideas. He thought Skowronek actually was supposed to be his first read, he said, and indeed, the quarterback looked in the direction of his tall outside threat throughout his dropback.

“Ben better check himself, because he’s the first read on that one,” Thorson said, laughing. “We’ll go over that.”

That miscommunication will likely be lost to history. The catch, meanwhile, will almost certainly go down in Cats lore forever, broken down into individual frames that seemed to last an eternity each: the ball arriving; Skowronek leaping forward; the crowd of 66,000 going silent with uncertainty; Skowronek emerging confident in the touchdown; Thorson sprinting down the sidelines with a delayed but ecstatic reaction.

And the opportunity that the play set up for NU — next month’s Big Ten championship — will absolutely, unquestionably go down in Cats lore, no ‘almost’ qualifier needed.

“It’s why I came here,” Skowronek said. “I wanted to do something that hasn’t been done in a while. … To come here, win and clinch it with a couple games left was really special.”

Twitter: @benpope111