Football: From separated shoulders to contested catches, Gordon and Navarro bring physicality to passing game


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Junior tight end Thomas Gordon (87) blocks a defender in Northwestern’s 2021 game against Michigan. Despite a separated shoulder, Gordon recorded career-highs in receptions and receiving yards in the Wildcats’ 31-28 win against Nebraska.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

Junior tight end Thomas Gordon waited for years to get his shot to contribute to Northwestern’s offense, so when that opportunity finally arrived in the Wildcats’ season opener against Nebraska, he was determined to make the most of it. 

Gordon’s resolve was tested on the play after NU’s momentum-shifting onside kick recovery in the third quarter, when he separated his shoulder on a routine run. As the Cats lined up for their next play, Gordon never considered leaving the field.

“We were playing up-tempo offense, so I had to stay in the game,” Gordon said. “I had to run around with like one arm. It’s pretty crazy but I wasn’t ready to sub out. I didn’t think I’d get the ball, but it came to me so I had to catch it with a separated shoulder.”

With his shoulder dipped slightly and stride slowed to a mere jog, Gordon limped behind the Nebraska front seven and hauled in Hilinski’s gentle pass with no defenders close by. The completion gave NU a first-down conversion, serving as a catalyst for the Cats’ 11-point second-half comeback.

NU junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski said he saw Gordon in pain from the previous run play, but knew his tight end could stick it out. 

“I was like, ‘Hey, you know that we’re going up-tempo, you need to do the play, I’ll throw it to you soft,’ just communication like that,” Hilinski said. “That should tell you all you need to know about Thomas — it doesn’t matter what happens, he’s just going to get the job done.”

The Cats’ season-opening 31-28 victory featured offensive contributions from familiar faces like Hilinski and junior running back Evan Hull. 

But the efforts of a couple of new names in the Cats lineup, Gordon and senior receiver Donny Navarro III, brought both production and toughness to NU’s passing game and impressed their teammates and coaches.

“Both (Gordon and Navarro) played physical at times, either blocking and the catches they had to make,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to need everybody, but seeing those two guys step up, I was proud of them.”

Before he was battling his way through injuries and picking up key first downs, Gordon saw most of his action on the practice field and on special teams. The product of Houston, Texas tallied two catches in his first three seasons in Evanston and was buried in the tight end depth chart by older players.

Gordon said he soaked up the nuances of the position from his fellow tight ends, but in Ireland, he finally had the opportunity he coveted to see the field on offense. On the Cats’ third drive, he found an opening in the secondary on an out-route for a 23-yard gain and a first down, before his gutsy 16-yard catch in the third quarter.

“I knew someday I would get my opportunity, and I needed to keep working at it,” Gordon said. “Everything that they told me was good information that I could use.”

Navarro came into the NU program this spring as a transfer after playing five years of college football for Valparaiso and archrival Illinois.

During their first practices together, Hilinski said Navarro pulled a notecard from his pocket and dictated the routes the pair would work on that day. The dedication from the 5-foot-11 wideout impressed Hilinski early on and helped ease the transition into the NU offense.

“I was looking to hit the ground running right away and be as prepared as possible, get in the film room, get in the playbook and just try to get timing right away,” Navarro said. 

The Hilinski-Navarro connection paid immediate dividends in the Cats’ first half effort against the Cornhuskers, but Navarro also proved his toughness to his teammates.

On a crossing route over the middle, Navarro jumped and pulled in a throw from Hilinski, then absorbed a crushing blow from a Nebraska defender. He held on, and the drive culminated in the Cats’ first points of the season. 

In NU’s two-minute drill to finish the first half and take the lead, [ Navarro’s playmaking ability reemerged. On 3rd-and-goal with less than 30 seconds left in the half, Navarro beat his defender in the seam and stretched his arms for the go-ahead touchdown, his first in the purple and white. He finished with four catches for 29 yards and a touchdown and almost made another highlight-reel catch along the sideline.

Whether scoring touchdowns or landing pivotal blocks, Navarro said physical play is crucial to his game and the Cats’ success.

“There’s a level of intensity, physicality (and) conditioning that we need to come with every day, every game, every snap,” Navarro said. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes for this offense and this team to move forward.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jhnriker

Related Stories:

Football: From blue to purple, NU’s Jeremiah Lewis ready to face his former team, Duke, on Saturday

— Ready for redemption: Northwestern’s offense looks to show its improvement against 2021 opponent Duke

— Football: Northwestern seeks to maintain momentum in home opener against Duke