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RAPID REACTION: Northwestern powers past Maryland 37-21 for first Big Ten win

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Northwestern finally turned in the performance we expected.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a first time for everything. The Northwestern Wildcats’ (3-3, 1-2 B1G) inaugural trip to College Park in Big Ten play ended in victory as they powered by the Maryland Terrapins (3-3, 1-2 B1G) 37-21.

For once, almost everything went right for the Wildcats. The Wildcats’ offense finally showed up, tallying 532 total yards against a porous Maryland defense. Justin Jackson finally passed Damien Anderson on the all-time career rushing yards leaderboard in the first quarter, ending the game with 171 yards and two touchdowns. Northwestern was able to make key stops on defense throughout the game and its coverage held up when it mattered.

The start of the game did not inspire much hope for Northwestern fans, as the team started exactly how it closed against Penn State. Northwestern’s first two drives ended in punts. While Northwestern’s defense held for a three-and-out the first time, Maryland QB Max Bortenschlager was able to drive Maryland down the field and score on a 12-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore. Clayton Thorson responded by throwing an interception to Maryland’s Darnell Savage, which wasn’t great.

The defense bailed out Thorson yet again, however, and gave him the ball back after a second Maryland three-and-put. On the next drive, Justin Jackson picked up a first down and the all-time rushing record. Northwestern was able to drive down to the Maryland 23 and pick up three points on a 40-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander.

The defense held again, and the offense looked completely revitalized when it came back on the field. Thorson broke out a couple big downfield passes to Fessler and Nagel, setting up Justin Jackson for an easy five-yard run to put Northwestern up 10-7. But Bortenschlager and Maryland immediately answered with a 52-yard bomb to D.J. Moore, putting Northwestern down 14-10.

Although Vegas projected the over/under at 48 points, the game suddenly turned into a shootout in the second quarter. Thorson and the passing offense displayed their upside on the ensuing drive. Thorson marshaled Northwestern down the field with the Wildcats’ typical spread/hurry-up combination. Thorson surprised the Terps’ defense by taking off for a 18-yard rushing touchdown. Northwestern’s defense stepped up despite not having Godwin Igwebuike and forced its third three-and-out of the quarter.

Thorson got the ball back with under three minutes and quickly moved the ball once again. A 20-yard pass to Lees set up a 14-yard touchdown pass to Flynn Nagel to put Northwestern up 24-14 at the half. With Northwestern receiving defensive reinforcements and Maryland doing nothing to stop the Northwestern offense, the Wildcats were in a strong position to win at the interval.

But Northwestern hadn’t played a good third quarter since Nevada (outscored 38-0 in third quarters since that game), and the Wildcats once again were sluggish coming out of the break. It started with a muffed punt return from Riley Lees that was overturned due to a dubious fair catch interference penalty. The two teams traded punts, and then Northwestern engineered a solid drive that led to a Kuhbander field goal for 27-14.

Maryland responded with a meticulous drive. Bortenschlager certainly did not look like a third-stringer, and he proceeded to hit Taivon Jacobs for a 20-yard touchdown pass off a perfectly executed run-pass option. With Northwestern down by 6 points, it needed a drive to stop the bleeding, but Thorson made an ill-advised throw to the end zone that was intercepted. However, Maryland squandered its opportunity, and the Kuhbander kicked his third field goal to keep the two-possession advantage.

Despite starting with good field position, the ensuing Maryland drive stalled out at midfield. Head coach D.J. Durkin decided to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Northwestern 44, but Bortenschlager’s pass fell incomplete. A huge Jackson run put Northwestern immediately in scoring range, but Northwestern decided to go for it on fourth-and-two from the Maryland 22. It didn’t work, and Maryland had some life.

But Maryland’s comeback was dealt a blow when Bortenschlager got injured after running for a key first down with 8 minutes left. Bortenschlager came back after two plays but the injury disrupted the Terps’ drive. Bortenschlager hurried back but a fourth down incompletion sealed the deal for Northwestern. Justin Jackson capped off the Wildcats’ day by breaking through for a 21-yard touchdown to put the game beyond doubt. Northwestern’s defense also ended on a positive note, stopping Maryland from scoring a consolation touchdown with a goal-line stand.

Northwestern will return home to face Iowa on October 21st. Big Ten West contention may be out of reach, but there’s still plenty to play for after this win.