There were plenty of reasons to think Northwestern would avoid a harrowing experience in its season opener against Nevada on Saturday.
For one, the Cats had started 0-2 twice in the previous three years, including last year’s Western Michigan and Illinois State disappointments.
For another, NU returned eight starters on defense and nine on offense, including heralded QB Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson, from the team that rallied after last year’s tough start.
But in college football, none of that matters. It’s about getting the job done.
After trailing most of the game, the Wildcats pulled out a 31-20 victory with two touchdowns in the final 5-1/2 minutes.
“Fired up about the win.’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “A year ago at this time, we ended up on the short end. To go in the locker room down two scores [at halftime] and walk in the locker up two scores [after the game], that shows a great response and a great resiliency by our guys.’’
Thorson wound up completing 28 of 38 for 352 yards, tying his career high, and two passing touchdowns.
His biggest plays came, though, on a pair of one-yard touchdown sneaks. The first came with 5:28 left and gave Northwesrtern a 24-20 lead, its first since an early 7-0 lead.
The 6-4, 220-pound junior quarterback sneaked in again from the 1 with 52 seconds left to give NU (1-0) its final margin over the Wolf Pack (0-1).
“I love it,’’ Thorson said. “Everyone does all the work. We get down to the 1 yardline and I get to punch it in. Thankfully, I’m about two yards long—pretty easy to get it in there.’’
Thorson set up the final TD with a bold 45-yard pass to Macan Wilson at the Nevada 3 yardline.
“He’s a guy who trusts his receivers and trusts his ability,’’ Fitzgerald said. “He’s been through a lot of battles; 18 wins as our quarterback.’’
In between Thorson’s one-yard TDs, the NU defense did its part by stopping Griffin Dahn, a 6-5 245-pound backup quarterback. Dahn carried on fourth-and-one at the Wolf Pack 48 with 3-1/2 minutes to play and NU leading 24-20.
“They put in a new quarterback and ran a formaiton that they hadn’t run all game,’’ said Fitzgerald, who knew this game against first-year Nevada coach Jay Norvell would be an adventure. “It was one of those games. Every rep was like, `Oh cool. That’s new.’ I thought our guys really responded, because our guys had to do a lot of adjusting.’’
Jackson, who’s tracking to become the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher, ran for 109 yards on 30 carries. Sophomore Bennett Skowronek, who led the receivers with eight catches for 123 yards, shook off a critical first-half fumble in which a Wolf Pack defender punched the ball out of his hands.
“[Everyone] told me just flush it, just let it go,’’ Skowronek said. “They helped me. After I got my first catch in the second half, I was just playing again.’’
While pleased with the win, Fitzgerald has a long list of areas where NU has work to do.
`Eight penalties for 90 yards is unacceptable,’’ the coach siad. “That was obviously disappointing. Eliminating the big plays we gave up on defense. And we have to do a much better on third downs [8 of 19] offensively.’’
For all the flaws, the positives of the W stood out.
“We have a lot of things to clean up,’’ Fitzgerald said. “But to get a win and do it in the fashion that we did, I’m proud of the guys.’’
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