Football: Northwestern earns 24-6 win over Indiana State behind prolific ground game, stout defense


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior receiver Malik Washington strides into the end zone for a touchdown. The Wildcats hung 14 points in the first quarter on the visiting Sycamores and didn’t look back, taking a 24-6 win.

John Riker, Sports Editor


For a Northwestern program accustomed to breezing through Saturdays in September with noncompetitive matchups against FCS opponents, the 2021 season opener against Michigan State — just the Wildcats’ third Big Ten game to open a season since 2000 — was a rude awakening.

A week after its humbling 38-21 defeat to the Spartans, NU found its footing to start out its nonconference stretch and earn its first win of the season.

Facing Indiana State of the Missouri Valley Conference, the Cats (1-1, 0-1 Big Ten) relied on their punishing ground game and a stout defense in a 24-6 victory over Indiana State (1-1). Sophomore running back Evan Hull ignited NU’s offense with 126 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while the Cats’ defense did not allow the visiting Sycamores a single red zone trip until the final five minutes.

“When you look at where you’re at as a Big Ten team against an FCS team, you’ve got to pound the ball,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When we targeted things right and executed, we did a good job.”

The Wildcats committed to the ground game immediately, giving Hull ten carries across NU’s first two drives. Hull, who has dealt with a lower-body injury this month, found gaping holes and gashed the Sycamore front seven for 78 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter.

“We noticed they played a three-man front,” Hull said. “Right off the bat, we thought that inside zone and outside zone were going to be our bread-and-butter plays going into the game, and it ended up happening that way.”

The rushing attack’s strong start rendered senior quarterback Hunter Johnson a bystander for most of the first quarter, though Johnson finished off the Cats’ second drive by arcing a pass over a defender and into the arms of junior receiver Malik Washington for a 25-yard touchdown and Washington’s first career score.

After the first quarter fireworks, the NU defense carried the Cats the rest of the way.

NU had its way with the Indiana State offense, holding the Sycamores scoreless until quarterback Anthony Thompson found tight end Zach Larkin for a nine-yard touchdown in the final minutes. The ensuing two-point conversion failed after Larkin, running out of the Wildcat, was stopped by sophomore linebacker Bryce Gallagher.

The Cats’ shored up rushing defense was the most pronounced improvement after surrendering 264 yards and 4 touchdowns to Kenneth Walker III in the opener. NU held the Sycamores to just 31 rushing yards and 1.4 yards per attempt. Nine of 11 Indiana State possessions culminated in punts.

The defense also held up on the back end, with the secondary allowing 136 passing yards and senior cornerback AJ Hampton Jr. registering three pass breakups.

“Communication was much better this week than it was in Week 1,” sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said. “It was an emphasis in practice and we were able to execute in the game.”

Even the special teams unit made its share of highlight-worthy plays. Joseph, fielding punts for his first time at college level, tore down the left sideline for a 49-yard return, then took the next punt 65 yards up the right sideline into the Sycamores’ red zone. The near-touchdown marked the Cats’ longest punt return since 2013.

In the third quarter, graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander atoned for missing a pair of field goals in the Cats’ opener by drilling a 47-yard attempt for his first field goal of the season and making both of his PAT attempts.

“(I’m) proud of the way our defense responded and really proud of the way our special teams played today,” Fitzgerald said. “I was really happy for Charlie… to come back into the wind, hit that career-long. I put him in a tough spot, I wanted to tell him and show him how much confidence in him.”

NU will travel to Durham, North Carolina next weekend for a non-conference matchup against Duke. Even after the convincing victory, Fitzgerald pointed to the offensive lull and “self-inflicted wounds” — four offensive drives resulted in negative yardage and Johnson finished with just 66 passing yards and his first interception of the season — as areas for growth moving forward.

“We’re far from where we need to be, and that’s probably what’s most exciting to me as this group’s coach,” Fitzgerald said. “We can be so much better, we just have to commit to that.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @john__riker

Related Stories: 

 Rapid Recap: Northwestern 24, Indiana State 6