Thorson’s late fumble at goal line dooms Northwestern in defeat

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EVANSTON, IL- SEPTEMBER 03: Clayton Thorson #18 of the Northwestern Wildcats passes over Keion Adams #1 of the Western Michigan Broncos during the first half on September 3, 2016 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

It was a beautiful Saturday for Northwestern’s opener. But in the end, Western Michigan was the team basking in the sun after a

22-21 upset victory.

And NU was left with some explaining to do before it goes back to the drawing board. This was very different from a year ago, when the Wildcats enjoyed a surprise opening win over Stanford, which wound up in the Rose Bowl.

‘‘I would remind [people] that the sky’s not falling,’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘Annie. The sun will come up tomorrow. You go back to work. Look at the Stanford team that came in here a year ago that we beat and they go on a great run.’’

Only a few days into the season, other teams also are dealing with adversity.

‘‘I’m sure the fans in Knoxville aren’t very happy even though they won a football game,’’ Fitzgerald said of Tennessee’s overtime escape against Appalachian State on Thursday. ‘‘But when we don’t win, nobody’s more disappointed than I am, and more importantly, the young men in the locker room.’’

In a game in which Western Michigan held the upper hand for most of it, the Wildcats had a chance to take the lead with three minutes to go. But quarterback Clayton Thorson fumbled on the 1-yard line. The ball went into the end zone, where Broncos safety Davontae Ginwright picked it up while going out of bounds, then inexplicably threw it back into play, and Northwestern fell on it. The officials ruled it a touchback after determining that Ginwright was out of bounds when he had the ball.

‘‘I have to hold on to the ball,’’ said Thorson, whose turnover marred a reasonable passing day (15-for-22, 196 yards). ‘‘I can’t fumble on the goal line.’’

Fitzgerald had no issue with the touchback decision.

This upset was no fluke, though.

The Broncos, who piled up 416 yards to NU’s 319, controlled the ball for 39 minutes. The final stats are even more impressive considering the Cats’ offense opened the game with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took just over five minutes.

‘‘For us to run 53 plays and give up 84 plays,’’ Fitzgerald said, ‘‘that tells you exactly the issue: the inability to sustain drives and third-down pickups and the inability to get [the Broncos] off the field.’’

On the bright side, junior running back Justin Jackson scored three touchdowns while rushing for 124 yards on 23 carries and catching two passes for 47 yards.

Plans to reduce Jackson’s workload took a hit when backup Warren Long left the game after one carry with a hand injury.

‘‘What a game,’’ said Broncos coach P.J. Fleck, who played at Kaneland and NIU. ‘‘Our team fought extremely hard. They kept their oar in the water the whole time. I would have loved to have played another 60 minutes, kind of, but I’ll take it when it ended.’’

The Wildcats will try to shake off their disappointment against Illinois State next week.

‘‘They learned a tough lesson today,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We didn’t play a Top 25 team, but we played a team that was the preseason pick to win their [Mid-American] conference. That’s a very good team, and they executed much better than we did. The credit goes to coach Fleck and his staff and players.’’

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