It seemed a meaningless endeavor at the time, and even after he explained the decision post-game, I’m not sure I understand what Pat Fitzgerald was thinking when he challenged Illinois receiver Steve Hull’s two-yard reception in the third quarter on 1st and 10 from the Illini 31-yard-line.
During the game, plenty of folks were baffled by the move, and rightfully so: With his team down four points, Fitzgerald was risking the loss of a potentially valuable timeout. And for what? To potentially set Illinois back two yards? In the big picture, were two receiving yards from a player who finished the game with 155 of them, including one 43-yard reception, so important as to warrant a challenge?
I was thinking it and so were you: This was a terrible decision.
As you can see below, Hull failed to complete the catch as he was tackled out of bounds by Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris. Clearly Fitzgerald (or one of Northwestern’s other coaches) recognized as much, or else they wouldn’t have felt confident enough to throw the flag. More interesting is what happened next.
…It actually worked. And not just in the obvious, Northwestern-won-a-challenge-and-didn’t-burn-a-time-out type of way. No, it turned the sarcastic tweet below into a prophetic proclamation.
After Hull’s would-be catch was ruled incomplete, Illini guard Alex Hill was flagged for a false start penalty. Two plays later, Illinois pinned Northwestern at its own 2-yard-line with a 66-yard punt. The Wildcats followed up with an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 23-yard touchdown catch from receiver Rashad Lawrence, to put Northwestern up 30-27. On Illinois’ next drive, Tyler Scott intercepted Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, giving Northwestern good field position near midfield. The Wildcats scored shortly thereafter, when quarterback Trevor Siemian connected with receiver Christian Jones for a seven-yard touchdown pass near the back corner of the end zone.
At that point, Northwestern led 37-27, and every bit of positive momentum Illinois had before Fitzgerald’s challenge – it had just forced Northwestern to punt and was leading by four, having erased a 10-point, first-half deficit – was gone. Illinois would score one more touchdown (on an 11-yard pass to receiver Miles Osei) with under 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining, but Northwestern was firmly in control at that stage. The game was out of reach.
Could it be a mere coincidence that Northwestern started playing better after Hull's catch was overturned? Sure. But maybe it wasn't. Responding to a question from the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein after the game about the challenge, Fitzgerald replied, “Being aggressive, Teddy!” Which is funny for an entirely different reason. Fitzgerald also said this about the challenge: "I'm trying to win every play."
“Trying to win every play” is one way to explain his decision to challenge a seemingly meaningless two-yard completion. Or we can just call it what it was: a #GAMECHANGER.