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Northwestern wins ugly, but it's still a win

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) is upended by Ball State cornerback Darius Conaway (20) and safety Blake Anders (18) during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

By JEFF ARNOLD — For The Sun-Times

For 30 minutes Saturday, Northwestern marched in place, seemingly unable to string anything

together against Ball State.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald knew facing a Mid-American Conference opponent would be more challenging than anyone outside his program expected, especially after the No. 17 Wildcats already had beaten Stanford and Duke.

The first half proved to be

exactly that.

But less than three minutes into the second half, NU hit the accelerator. The Wildcats confidently moved 80 yards before doing it again on their next possession on their way to turning a three-point halftime deficit into a 24-19 victory at Ryan Field.

‘‘Obviously, I didn’t get them ready to play the way they were

capable of in the first half,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘But I thought we responded. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but we found a way to win, and that’s what’s important.’’

NU quarterback Clayton Thorson, who committed three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception) in a forgettable first half, finished each of the touchdown drives in the third quarter with scoring passes. He wound up with 256 passing yards and three touchdowns.

The Wildcats (4-0) grabbed a 14-10 lead on a 21-yard scoring pass from Thorson to superback Dan Vitale, then made it 21-10 on a

25-yard touchdown pass from Thorson to receiver Austin Carr.

By the time Jack Mitchell capped NU’s third scoring drive of the quarter with a 21-yard field goal, a team that hadn’t hit many bumps in the first three weeks of the season appeared to be rolling again.

The Wildcats, though, weren’t without their sputters.

A 29-yard touchdown pass from Riley Neal to Jordan Williams pulled the Cardinals (2-2) to 24-16 late in the third. Williams had 133 yards on eight catches, including two that went for touchdowns.

After Thorson and running back Justin Jackson, who ran for a

career-high 184 yards on 33 carries, drove NU to Ball State’s 7 early

in the fourth, Mitchell clanked a

26-yard field goal attempt off the right upright, keeping the Cardinals in striking distance.

But a Wildcats defense that lost tackle C.J. Robbins, safety Godwin Igwebuike and safety Kyle Queiro to injury in the first half and end Ifeadi Odenigbo in the fourth quarter protected the lead despite Ball State’s late surge.

After Morgan Hagee made a

36-yard field goal with 4:34 left to get the Cardinals to 24-19, NU was able to run out enough of the clock to hold on for the victory.

‘‘Very rarely are you going to win football games when you lose the turnover ratio by two and you miss a field goal,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We were very fortunate.’’

Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.