Northwestern’s 49-7 win on Saturday evening was decisive. Seeking a fast start after last week’s embarrassment in Durham, the Northwestern Wildcats (2-1) boasted a 35-7 halftime lead over the Bowling Green Falcons (0-3), flipping the script that’s plagued them early this season. With dates with Wisconsin and Penn State following next week’s bye, the last thing Northwestern wanted to do was to limp into its toughest stretch of the season. They avoided doing so on Saturday night.
Despite Pat Fitzgerald’s halftime switch from pants to shorts, the offense did not entirely cool off in the second half by adding two more touchdowns. Clayton Thorson set a career high with 370 passing yards and Justin Jackson tied his career high with three rushing touchdowns. Matt Alviti and Jesse Brown picked up where Thorson and Jackson left out, manufacturing an 82-yard touchdown drive of their own midway through the fourth quarter. It was a complete demolition, the kind of performance we were waiting to see this season. By a per play basis, it was Northwestern’s best offensive effort in the Fitzgerald era.
Good teams cover, as they say, and Fitzgerald’s team easily covered the lofty 21.5 point spread. They dropped 49 points on the Falcons, amassed 678 yards of offense and converted on third-down efficiently at an 8-of-11 clip. The Falcons, who dropped to 0-3, were physically outmatched on Saturday evening, and are not a good barometer for how good this team actually is. And while the score was dominant, that doesn’t mean Northwestern played the perfect game.
This game served as a promising confidence booster as the banged-up Wildcats head into a much-needed bye week. A daunting trip to Madison awaits; the No. 10 Badgers won 40-6 in Provo, Utah on Saturday and will be coming off a bye week as well. No. 5 Penn State looms the week after.
“There’s a ton we’ve got to work on,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to work on so many things in all three phases. We’re going to meet tomorrow and put this game to bed.”
It’s hard to find flaws in such a convincing victory, but Northwestern lost the turnover battle for a consecutive game. Jelani Roberts fumbled after taking a huge hit near the sideline, and Jeremy Larkin fumbled near the goal line at an eerily similar position to where Thorson coughed it up against Western Michigan last year. Neither turnover led to Bowling Green points, but they will in the next two games. Northwestern has now fumbled in all three games, while Larkin has been the lone running back to do so.
“You saw how we started the third quarter there,” Thorson said. “Two fumbles, a punt, it was a horrible way to start the half. It doesn’t matter if we’re winning or losing. If you play like that, how we did to start the half, you aren’t going to win games. They came out ready to go in the second half and we didn’t.”
Garrett Dickerson, who had a career-high 150 receiving yards, echoed his quarterback’s sentiments. “I think Clayton said it, we came out kind of dead in the second half. That’s definitely something we need to work on.”
It’s clear that the Wildcats did work on some things in practice last week. After managing just one sack through the first two games, the defensive line had three sacks against a poor Bowling Green offensive line. The Falcons allowed four sacks to South Dakota last week, but after yielding 233 yards on the ground to Duke, Northwestern held its MAC foe to just 96 yards. On the other side, Bowling Green managed little pass-rush as Thorson was able to find open receivers all evening.
Having played three consecutive one-possession games against MAC opponents, including losses to Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, Northwestern’s blowout win was a pleasant surprise. However, while the home team dominated at Ryan Field, Bowling Green’s offense moved the ball effectively early in the contest.
Starting quarterback James Morgan was largely inaccurate but picked apart the middle of the Northwestern defense in the first quarter. Morgan engineered a game-tying touchdown drive in the first that was capped by a 20-yard touchdown rush by Cleveland. Morgan had converted on third-and-long the following drive before Montre Hartage stripped Datrin Guyton.
There’s no way to know what the point-swing of the turnover was, but when the Wildcats needed just one play to capitalize on the turnover, momentum had switched and a potential game-tying Bowling Green drive had turned into a 14-point Wildcats lead. If Guyton can complete that play and protect the football, the Falcons have the ball in Northwestern territory yet again, looking to tie the game at 14. Four of Bowling Green’s five third-down conversions came on those two drives. For a quarter, Northwestern’s defense looked vulnerable.
“Fundamentally, we’ve got to get a lot more consistent,” Fitzgerald said. “I still see some fundamental issues we have and for us to win a Big Ten football game we’ve got to be close to 100-percent there. We can’t turn the ball over. In a different type of gam those could have deadly. We’ve got to have much better ball security. We’ve turned the ball over more in these three games than I think we have in a long time. From a standpoint on defense, we’ve got to get a better pass rush. We’ve got to affect the quarterback more.”
Northwestern’s win over Bowling Green may have been by 42 points, but it was far from the flawless game that the scoreboard may indicate. Nonetheless, the Wildcats got a huge confidence booster heading into the bye week and will have plenty of time to prepare for consecutive Top 10 opponents. Northwestern will need to eradicate its turn bug and find consistency and the ability to get off the field on defense. Nobody knows this more than Fitzgerald.
“Today was probably our best of the first three games, but we’ve got to get better overall,” he said.