After struggling through an ugly first half, the Northwestern Wildcats came back from a halftime deficit in order to beat the Ball State Cardinals on Saturday night at Ryan Field by a score of 24-19. The win means the Wildcats stay undefeated on the young season.
As the No. 17 team in the country with an impressive 3-0 record, Northwestern entered Saturday's game vs. Ball State with high expectations, and as 17-point favorites. In the first half, though, it appeared as if that heightened outlook got to the Wildcats, as they were dominated in all aspects of the game by the visiting Cardinals.
Northwestern committed three turnovers in the first half, which was a big reason as to why the Wildcats found themselves in a 10-7 hole at intermission. Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson looked shaky and inexperienced, the vaunted NU defense wasn't able to make many plays (outside of a forced fumble with Ball State on Northwestern's 4-yard line) and multiple key Wildcats left with injuries.
Tight end Garrett Dickerson (lower body), safety Godwin Igwebuike (upper body), left tackle Geoff Mogus (upper body) and safety Kyle Queiro (upper body) all got injured in the first two quarters and wouldn't return to the game. Mogus actually had to be carted off the field. The injuries, which seemed to happen in a row, set a somber tone in Ryan Field, which probably contributed to the Wildcats' general first half malaise.
However, a quick start in the third quarter — via the second Thorson-to-Dan-Vitale score of the game — put the Wildcats ahead 14-10, giving them a lead they would hold the rest of the night. The win improved NU's record to 4-0 heading into next week's Big Ten opener against Minnesota. Ball State fell to 2-2 on the 2015 season.
Here are some more takeaways from the big home win:
1. Clayton Thorson shook off a bad start and finished very strong
After not fumbling once in his first three college games, Thorson coughed up the ball twice in the first half, each of which led to a Ball State score (one a touchdown, the other a field goal). He also threw a really bad interception to no one in particular toward the end of the second quarter. He did throw a long, 66-yard touchdown pass to Dan Vitale in the second quarter to get on the board.
Still, the inconsistency from the redshirt freshman did leave the possibility open that Pat Fitzgerald would consider other options at quarterback for the second half. He chose not to do so, and his signal-caller rewarded him with a nearly flawless two quarters of play.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Thorson placed a beautiful pass right into the hands of Vitale for a 21-yard score. The touchdown capped off a strong drive for Northwestern in which Thorson completed all four of his pass attempts and looked poised and confident. After a three-and-out from Ball State and a subsequent punt, he led an 80-yard drive down the field which ended in a 25-yard touchdown pass to Austin Carr that put NU up 21-10.
After playing some of the worst football of his college career in the first and second quarters, Thorson responded with a slew of accurate and strong tosses that the Wildcats badly needed him to make. Talk about rewarding a coach for having confidence in you. He finished 17-for-30 with 247 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Here are the highlights from his up-and-down performance.
2. Justin Jackson surely, and quietly, got the job done
After Jackson's uneven performance last week at Duke, Northwestern wasn't quite sure what it would get from its starting running back tonight. Besides a huge 62-yard scamper that led to a NU field goal, Jackson didn't roll off many long runs in this game, but he managed to end up with a career-high in rushing with 184 yards on 33 carries. Since so many of his runs were of the four- and five-yard variety, he piled up yardage pretty efficiently without making many big plays.
But the Wildcats don't need Jackson to be flashy and certainly don't need to rely on him scoring the football himself. They just need him to force the defense to honor the run — which opens up the passing game — and he did more than that tonight. There's a reason he's the most important player for the Northwestern offense.
3. The injuries are a cause for concern
Obviously, we won't know the severity of the multiple injuries Northwestern suffered against Ball State for a few days. What we do know is that they bring NU's depth at several key positions into question. Injuries to safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro forced Terrance Brown, a lightly used backup, into action which seriously hurt the secondary and may have to one or both of Ball State wide receiver Jordan Williams' two touchdowns.
The injury to Geoff Mogus, a senior starter at left tackle, made redshirt freshman Blake Hance switch from left to right tackle to fill in while the Garrett Dickerson setback limited how many superback options NU had its disposal.
If any of those guys are out for a significant amount of time, then the Wildcats will have some big issues to deal with
4. The defense showed its imperfections
Through three games, the Northwestern defense was one of the top defenses in college football, if not the best defense, having allowed just 16 points in 12 quarters of play. It allowed more tonight versus Ball State--19 points--than in those three combined, as the injury-depleted secondary had trouble sticking with Cardinals senior wide receiver Jordan Williams, who caught seven passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
Also, true freshman quarterback Riley Neal (13-for-34 passing with 165 yards and a touchdown; 74 rushing yards on 16 carries) was able to manipulate the NU coverage with ease through the air or on the ground for much of the first half while Ball State's pair of running backs--combined for 110 yards on 17 carries. NU was only able to force one turnover--a first half fumble that likely prevented a touchdown--and had a lot of trouble getting off the field. It did not seem like its usual dominant self.
Still, though, it was good enough to get the necessary stops at times for the Wildcats to win the game. Certainly, it was aided by Ball State kicker Morgan Hagee missing two makeable first half field goals but the point remains. NU can't expect its defense to play at such a high level every game, so the fact that the Wildcats were able to win without it doing so says something.