Football: Northwestern wins big despite losing turnover margin and bad offense


Carlos Stinson-Maas/The Daily Northwestern

Paddy Fisher jumps for the ball. The junior linebacker and Northwestern beat UMass 45-6 on Saturday at Ryan Field.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor


Throughout the season, coach Pat Fitzgerald has emphasized the need for Northwestern to create takeaways and win the turnover margin, and with good reason. Teams that win that battle tend to leave the field victorious.

Against UMass on Saturday, the Wildcats were on the wrong side of the margin, having three turnovers and forcing only one takeaway. NU (2-8, 0-7 Big Ten) also gained only 100 more yards than the Minutemen (1-10) and ran 12 less plays.

Despite these anaomiles, the Cats won the game by almost 40 points as they overcame their mistakes with luck, circumstance and a couple of big plays.

“We have to take care of the football — can’t turn the ball over,” Fitzgerald said. “When you do that against any team you play, you put yourself in a position to lose games. For us we are doing it way too much at certain positions right now. More so than we ever have.”

The first 15 minutes were an absolute mess for the Cats offense. Going up against the Minutemen’s worst-ranked defense, NU had a three-and-out on its first possession before junior quarterback Aidan Smith threw two interceptions. One came after he tried to throw across the field and another time a defensive lineman blocked his throw and snagged the ball out of midair.

Fitzgerald said he thought about making a change at the position at that moment, but decided against it. Smith played the next two quarters, and his performance didn’t change much. He finished 7 of 13 for 76 passing yards and 47 rushing yards. And while it’s his first win as a starting quarterback, it was nothing to write home about.

“We are doing things that losers do on offense,” Fitzgerald said. “Our respect for the football has been awful.”

Smith wasn’t the only one on offense to perform poorly. Redshirt freshman running back Drake Anderson fumbled again, and he was benched afterwards because of it. In his place was true freshman running back Evan Hull, whose standout game gave the offense life.

On defense, the Cats gave up a plethora of yardage to the Minutemen in the first quarter, but tightened up in the red zone. They also forced one interception.

It came in the third quarter when quarterback Randall West made an ill-advised throw that landed snuggly in the arms of junior linebacker Blake Gallagher, who sidestepped multiple defenders like a fox in the wild. The Massachusetts native scampered up the sideline for 40 yards before being dragged down by Mike Yerardi at the UMass 12.

“We had the ball in our hands two or three other times when we could have had interceptions,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that gives us a lot more momentum if we make those plays. We are going to need to make those plays if we expect to compete and win in the next two games.”

After the bad first quarter, the Cats changed the momentum of the game seconds into the second quarter. Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano blocked Cooper Garcia’s field goal attempt and junior linebacker Chris Bergin recovered the football and returned it 85 yards for the #ScoopAndScore.

It wasn’t a perfect day for the defense and special teams units, but along with the performance Hull, the groups did enough to win the games.

“I can’t tell you what it feels like,” Bergin said. “Regardless of our record, you never get tired of victory.”

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