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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern squeaks by Rutgers, 18-15


NCAA Football: Northwestern at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It may leave a bad taste in Northwestern’s mouth, but the Wildcats are headed back to Evanston with an 18-15 win, and a 4-1 record in conference play.

A punt-fest in Northern New Jersey had upset written all over it until late in the fourth quarter. Coming off of an overtime win against a winless Nebraska team, the Wildcats came out slow again as Rutgers (1-7, 0-5 Big Ten) almost collected their first conference win of the season. The Scarlet Knights used an explosive running play and a safety to jump out to a 15-7 lead before Northwestern finally wore them down in a game where neither team averaged more than four yards per play.

There wasn’t a lot to like as a Northwestern fan offensively. Clayton Thorson had a tough game, going 17-of-34 for 150 yards as he struggled to find any of his targets other than Flynn Nagel, who was able to collect eight catches for 71 yards. Isaiah Bowser scored two touchdowns and ran hard en route to a 108-yard day.

A muffed fair catch on the opening kickoff pinned Rutgers on their own 1-yard line, marking the quintessential start to an ugly game in Piscataway. But, if you tuned into Rutgers vs. Northwestern on a Saturday at noon looking for a pretty game, you came to the wrong place.

Northwestern took advantage of their unique field position on the first drive of the day as Isaiah Bowser brought home the first touchdown of his career to take a 7-0 lead. Northwestern’s offense went stagnant for the rest of the half after that drive.

With not much working for Northwestern in the first half, the offensive line was a unique strong suit for the Wildcats, giving Thorson plenty of time to throw in the pocket that infrequently resulted in any significant yardage. The highlight play of the half came when Chad Hanaoka flipped a Rutgers defensive back upside down to protect the quarterback.

The Wildcats and Scarlet Knights combined for 229 yards in the first half, 44 of which came from an Isaih Pacheco touchdown run that put Rutgers up 10-7. Rutgers capped the half off with a safety for a halftime score of 12-7.

Like I said, this was an ugly one.

The second half picked-up where the first half left-off as Thorson fumbled at midfield and Rutgers took advantage of a short field to pick up a field goal. Northwestern responded by marching down the field behind Chad Hanaoka and Isaiah Bowser, but had to settle for a field goal to make it 15-10.

Northwestern came up with a couple huge conversions two drives later. First, Thorson found Riley Lees for a 29-yard completion on third down, then hooked up with Nagel on 4th and 4 deep in Rutgers territory. A play later, Bowser carried his second touchdown of the day into the endzone and Northwestern converted the 2-point conversion to make it 18-15.

Rutgers could not get anything going on offense — a theme for the day — and NU was able to put together a few first downs to run out the clock.

In fitting fashion, Jake Collins punted the ball out of bounds as the clock expired.