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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern suffers humiliating loss to Illinois State, 9-7

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The wheels have completely fallen off.

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON - After a tough, controversial loss to Western Michigan last week, Northwestern desperately needed a bounce-back performance against FCS opponent Illinois State. The Wildcats dismal start to the season continued with a 9-7 loss.

In a game that started slowly for both offenses, Northwestern couldn’t get anything going against the Redbirds. After its offense put up 50 points last week, it was the Illinois State defense that shut down Northwestern, keeping the Wildcats off the scoreboard the entire first half. Northwestern didn’t score until the 4th quarter, a 10-yard touchdown reception by Austin Carr. That proved to be too little too late.

The scoreless first quarter was fittingly highlighted by both defenses. On the first drive of the game, the Wildcats got a timely third down sack from senior Ifeadi Odenigbo to push Illinois State back into their own territory. On the Redbirds second possession, a sack by CJ Robbins helped stall the drive, forcing a 49-yard field goal attempt by Sean Slattery that fell short.

Offensively, however, Northwestern struggled to get anything going against Illinois State’s strong defense. Clayton Thorson started the game sharp, going 4-for-6 for 34 yards in the first quarter, but he underthrew a wide-open Macan Wilson who had gotten behind the defense 40-yards downfield. The Wildcats managed just three first-downs all quarter.

Northwestern’s defense nearly broke midway through the second quarter, as Illinois State got receptions of 36 and 26 yards from star receiver Anthony Warrum. On 3rd and goal from the Northwestern 8-yard line, sophomore Montre Hartage picked off Jake Kolbe in the endzone, the first interception of his career.

Hartage’s interception seemed to spark the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats drove to the Illinois State 16-yard line, highlighted by a diving 14-yard reception on the sideline by Austin Carr on 4th and 8. Thorson proceeded to throw three consecutive incompletions in the endzone, and Jack Mitchell pushed a 33-yard field goal right of the uprights. Thorson would finish the half 10-for-20, while Justin Jackson received just seven carries which he turned into 32 yards.

As momentum swung yet again, Illinois State finally broke the scoreless game on an 11 play, 80 yard drive, capped by a six-yard George Moreira touchdown run. The Redbirds missed the point-after and the first half mercilessly ended 6-0. Kolbe engineered the attack, finishing the half 17-for-22 with 174 yards through the air.

Needing a solid drive to start the second half, the Wildcats failed to get into Illinois State territory, and were forced to punt for the fourth time on five possessions.

After forcing Illinois State to punt at their own 42, Flynn Nagel watched the ball land in front of him and bounce to the Northwestern two-yard line. On 3rd and 9 from its own three, Northwestern was bailed out by a questionable pass-interference call on a pass intended for Wilson. On a similar 3rd and long from its own 15, Northwestern received yet another pass-interference call on a deep ball to Skowronek. Two plays later on 3rd and 3, Thorson found Wilson on an out route who turned the corner for a 34-yard gain. The drive abruptly ended after the Wildcats failed to convert on 4th-down inside the Illinois State 30-yard line.

After the change of possession, Illinois State drove into Northwestern territory after a questionable pass interference call on Matt Harris. On third and long from the Northwestern 35, Kolbe made one of his only bad decisions of the day. With pressure in his face, he lofted a ball up the middle of the field that was easily intercepted by safety Jared McGee.

Three plays later, Pat Fitzgerald opted to punt on 4th and four from the Illinois State 45-yard line, and Hunter Niswander pinned the Redbirds at their own 8. The Wildcat defense was able to force its first three-and-out of the game, giving the offense good field position at its own 45-yard line.

Then, Clayton Thorson took over. He found Garrett Dickerson for 17 yards and converted Austin Carr for 14 yards on 3rd-and-long to put the ball inside the Illinois State 30. Thorson rushed on consecutive plays, taking two big hits, and headed to the sideline to be replaced by Matt Alviti who scampered for three yards to make it 4th and short. With Justin Jackson on the training table, Auston Anderson picked up the first down with a four yard carry.

Two more Thorson rushes and an incomplete pass later, Northwestern faced 4th and 5 from the Illinois State 10-yard line. Thorson found Austin Carr on a corner route for a 10-yard touchdown, putting the Wildcats up 7-6 with 9:10 remaining in the 4th quarter.

The following play, Northwestern saw this game get impossibly worse. Matt Harris lay injured on the field with a head injury following the kick off, and left the field with the help of trainers. He would not return.

With Alonzo Mayo already out for the game, Northwestern’s secondary depth was tested. As Trae Williams shifted back to corner, the defense was able to get off the field on the second series of the drive.

After the big stop, Northwestern promptly went three-and-out, giving Illinois State the ball back at its 16-yard line with 6:15 remaining in the game. Then, the Wildcat defense stepped up, and Xavier Washington chased down Kolbe as he escaped the pocket to the sideline to force just the Redbirds’ second three-and-out of the game.

After two more runs for minimal gains and Thorson’s 24th incomplete pass of the day (he would finish 17-for-41), Niswander pinned the Redbirds inside their own 15-yard line once again. Kolbe quickly got his team out from the shadows of their own goal line with an 18-yard completion, an even tougher play as Tyler Lancaster left the game shaken up.

Illinois State picked apart a depleted Northwestern secondary on short pass plays to bring the ball down to the Northwestern 16, setting up a 33-yard field goal attempt for Slattery. He banked it in off the left upright, and the nightmare for Northwestern has begun.