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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern defeats Rutgers 21-7, secures first Big Ten win of its season

It was a happy Homecoming Saturday in Evanston.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, IL — The Wildcats are in the Big Ten win column.

After suffering an embarrassing defeat at Nebraska two weeks ago, Northwestern (3-3, 1-2 B1G) came out strong on both sides of the ball and handily defeated Rutgers (3-4, 0-4 B1G) 21-7 on Saturday.

With over 30 prospects in attendance, Northwestern played its best overall game of the season. Players on both sides of the ball had strong showings in a contest that the ‘Cats led from start to finish.

Northwestern’s defense was the story of the game, as it was downright dominant throughout. After giving up an average of 47 points in its two games against Big Ten opponents so far this season, Jim O’Neil’s unit held Rutgers to just seven total points. The front seven, which has been subject to heavy criticism throughout this season, recorded four sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Adetomiwa Adebawore and Bryce Gallagher led the way for their respective position groups, with Adebawore collecting four tackles for loss, a sack and two quarterback hurries while Gallagher had 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry.

Offensively, Ryan Hilinski and the passing attack led the way for Northwestern. Without Bryce Kirtz and Trey Pugh, Stephon Robinson Jr. and Malik Washington stepped up. Robinson Jr. had five catches for 115 yards and Washington added five catches for 84 yards and one touchdown. On the ground, Andrew Clair rushed for an efficient 63 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown that effectively ended the game.

Northwestern won the toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff. Immediately, Ryan Hilinski & Co. started off with a bang, as he tossed a 47-yard pass to a streaking Stephon Robinson down the right sideline. They were unable to convert the opening drive into points, however, as Charlie Kubhander’s 44-yard field goal attempt went wide left.

The Wildcat defense held firm on Rutgers’ first drive (a noted difference from recent games). On a third-and-8 near midfield, Adetomiwa Adebawore sacked Noah Vedrel for a loss of four yards to force a punt. Northwestern responded with a three-and-out of its own, only for the Scarlet Knights to give the ball right back on a stellar punt by Adam Korsak, pinning NU at its own two-yard line.

It looked like Northwestern would be forced to punt again, but a 28-yard catch by Robinson Jr. moved the ‘Cats out of their own endzone. Three plays later, Malik Washington turned a catch that would have been a 30-yard gain into a 64-yard touchdown, bulldozing a safety on his way to paydirt. The 7-0 lead marked the first time that Northwestern led in a Big Ten game this season, and it was a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

After trading possessions, a Rutgers muffed punt set up Northwestern on the Scarlet Knights’ 35-yard line. On the next play, a botched handoff to Evan Hull moved the ‘Cats back 11 yards. Two plays later, Mike Bajakian decided to go for it on fourth-and-twelve, but Hilinski’s pass intended for Marshall Lang sailed over Lang’s head. The Northwestern defense then forced another stop as the second quarter began.

On Northwestern’s next possession it was Andrew Clair that got the offense churning with a nine-yard run up the middle before ripping off a 27-yard run down the right sideline. However, that would be all the ‘Cats could put together on the possession, as two short runs and a failed running back screen forced a Derek Adams punt that put the Knights at their own three-yard line.

On the ensuing drive, a 46-yard completion to a wide-open Bo Melton moved Rutgers into Northwestern territory. Despite a Bryce Gallagher sack two plays later, Melton found himself wide open again, this time in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown catch to even up the score with 8:44 remaining in the second quarter.

However, Northwestern’s passing attack continued to hurt the Rutgers defense, as a 32-yard JJ Jefferson reception over the middle and a defensive pass interference call placed the ball at Rutgers’ two-yard line. Hilinski then floated a short pass to a wide open Marshall Lang that made it 14-7 with 3:15 left in the half. The Wildcats would hold that lead as they went into halftime.

Despite a few miscues and missed tackles on the defensive side of the ball, Northwestern embodied its “bend, don’t break” mantra in the first half. Unlike its last game against Nebraska, the ‘Cats recovered well from big plays, accumulating three sacks on its way to limiting the Scarlet Knights to just one score. Big plays from Washington and Robinson Jr. saw Northwestern gain 231 yards through the air in a solid first half performance from Hilinski.

Both offenses sputtered to start the second half, as a horrible attempt at a fake punt by the Wildcats near the middle of the field would eventually set up a 33-yard Rutgers field goal attempt that sailed wide left. Neither team would score in the third quarter with both defenses causing negative plays behind the line of scrimmage. Overall, the first 15 minutes of the second half saw limited action.

Midway through the fourth quarter, a flurry of penalties on Rutgers that included defensive holding, a sideline interference and a defensive pass interference call in the end zone helped move the ‘Cats to goal to go distance. Andrew Clair found the end zone after three straight rushing attempts to make it 21-7 with just under eight minutes to play.

Northwestern’s defense would not bend on the ensuing Rutgers possession, forcing another punt from inside the Knights’ own 20.

In typical Fitz fashion, the ‘Cats were conservative on offense for the remainder of the game, relying on their defense to make stops to close out the game. A Samdup Miller sack on a Rutgers fourth down with under four minutes to play sealed the win for Northwestern.

The ‘Cats will now turn their attention to No. 8 Michigan and hope to continue their momentum in Ann Arbor on Oct. 23.