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Bowser, Hanaoka are NU’s “bullpen” as ground game helps the Wildcats escape Rutgers

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The two reserve running backs allowed NU to overcome Clayton Thorson’s worst performance of the season.

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

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Hours before the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers got set to play Game 7 of the NLCS, Pat Fitzgerald invoked a baseball metaphor to describe Northwestern’s uncomfortably close 18-15 win over Rutgers on Saturday.

“A pitcher goes out on the mound, warmed up great, had a great week of prep, like we did,” he said. “And then all of a sudden things aren’t working the way you want them to work. You still have to find a way to keep inching to the end and get the win. Or get it to your bullpen, in baseball terms.”

The Brewers had to make do with their bullpen in Game Four of the NLCS when Gio Gonzalez went down with an ankle injury in the second inning.

Northwestern had to find a way to win without its top four running backs after John Moten IV and Solomon Vault did not make the trip to New Jersey.

Isaiah Bowser (108 yards and two touchdowns), Chad Hanaoka (6 carries, 26 yards), and Drake Anderson (7 carries, 24 yards) were capable fill-ins as NU amassed 146 sack-adjusted yards on the ground, the most the team has managed since Jeremy Larkin’s retirement.

Bowser had two of NU’s three chunk plays on the day, running as physically as any NU back since Week Three. Hanaoka was a contributor out of the backfield and in the passing game. He also contributed what can only be referred to as a “highlight block.”

To say things weren’t working the way NU wanted them to work may be an understatement. The Wildcats plowed down a short field on their first drive after Rutgers muffed the opening kickoff at the 1-yard-line. Bowser scored from 3 yards out to give NU the lead just five minutes into the game, but the Wildcats wouldn’t score again for nearly 35 minutes of game time.

In the meantime, Rutgers scored on a 44-yard scamper from Isaih Pacheco that Fitz chalked up to a “mis-fit” and tallied a safety by sacking Clayton Thorson in the endzone. A couple field goals made it 15-7 late in the third quarter.

“It’s Big Ten football. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination,” Fitz said. “We played a wounded animal today. Homecoming, we knew we were going to get their best shot and we did, and we responded with a bunch of pups.”

Led by Bowser and Hanaoka, who combined for 50 yards on the ground, the Wildcats punched back with a drive that resulted in a field goal.

Seemingly out of rhythm for the majority of the game, Thorson was able to guide NU down the field two drives later for the go-ahead score. The Wildcats converted two fourth downs on their game-winning drive, including a 10-yard completion to Flynn Nagel on 4th and 4 from the Rutgers 15. One play later, Bowser tallied his second touchdown of the day to give the Wildcats the lead.

Thorson didn’t give NU his best on Saturday, missing several open receivers and fumbling near mid-field, but his bullpen backed him up.

“I don’t think I played as well as I know I could have and should have so that’s on me,” Thorson said. “But it was a great team win.”

Thorson noted how proud he was of both Bowser and Hanaoka following the game.

“You see a lot of those young running backs playing, Isaiah and Drake, and a big part of the reason they’re playing is because Chad’s helped them a lot and so for Chad to get out there and get some production is so sweet ... for all of us to see,” he said.

Northwestern’s final drive might have been the most persuasive evidence of its revived rushing attack. Behind Bowser’s 40 yards, NU held onto the football for the final 6:30 of the game. In fitting fashion, the clock hit zero as Jake Collins’ boot (the 16th punt of the game between the two teams) sailed out of bounds.

Worry not. Northwestern beat Nebraska and Rutgers as it needed to, and now it gets the first of two Big Ten Championship play-in games Saturday against Wisconsin.

“Win and advance,” Fitzgerald said. “It doesn’t matter about style points.”