EVANSTON-Northwestern finally looked like the team many people were expecting this season.
After a shaky win over Nevada and a humiliating defeat at Duke, the Wildcats came out and dominated Bowling Green, 49-7, on a beautiful and unseasonably hot night at Ryan Field.
Yes, the victory came against a bottom-tier MAC team, but Northwestern played by far its most complete game of the year and took care of a non-Power Five team the way a Big Ten squad is supposed to. How much of that had to do with the Wildcats’ execution, and how much can be attributed to a struggling 0-3 Falcons squad remains to be seen.
But if nothing else, the lopsided win should give the Wildcats come confidence heading into a bye week, and then the start of Big Ten play on Sept. 30 at Wisconsin.
Here are our six points on an easy and sorely needed victory:
The offense exploded: Bowling Green’s porous defense was just what the doctor ordered for a comatose Northwestern offense. The Wildcats, who managed just 191 yards of total offense in a 41-17 loss at Duke last week, generated 347 yards and 35 points in the first half against Bowling Green. The Wildcats ended up with a blistering 678 yards of total offense, a well-balanced 303 on the ground and 378 through the air. The Wildcats made big plays in the running and passing games, converted a remarkable 8 of 11 third downs and averaged a school-record 9.2 yards per play. After sputtering around for six of eight quarters in the opening two games of the season, the Wildcats finally got their offensive engine humming against the Falcons.
Big plays in the passing game were the key: After the loss to Duke, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Wildcats’ failure to win one-on-one battles on the outside hamstrung the offense. On Saturday night, however, Northwestern’s wide receivers got separation and made plays downfield. Clayton Thorson hit a wide-open Bennett Skowronek for a 58-yard touchdown near the end of the first quarter to give the Wildcats a 14-7 lead. Thorson followed that up with 28- and 27-yard passes to Garrett Dickerson. In the second half, he hit Jeremy Larkin for a 39-yard pass to the BG 2-yard line (Larkin fumbled it into the end zone for a touchback) and another 28-yarder to Dickerson. In all, Thorson completed 23 of 30 passes (76.7 percent) for a career-high 370 yards and two TDs, looking very much like the confident, accurate passer that closed out the 2016 season. He also added 46 rushing yards on 7 carries.
The running game was revived: The Northwestern running game that was just about non-existent against Duke (22 total yards) looked like its old self against Bowling Green. Once the Wildcats hit a few downfield throws (see above), Justin Jackson and company went to work on the ground. Jackson, looking fully recovered from whatever was ailing him last week, had a 42-yard run and finished with 121 yards on 18 carries (a 6.7-yard average) and three touchdowns. Jackson’s three scores tied a career high he last reached in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl and gave him 34 in his career, good for third place on the all-time NU list. Jackson’s backup, redshirt freshman Jeremy Larkin, also got into the act, finishing with 31 yards on four carries, including a nifty 14-yard touchdown run. Backup quarterback Matt Alviti, who made an appearance in his second straight game, added a 68-yard run to set up the Wildcats’ last score.
A strip-and-scoop by NU’s defense was the turning point of the game: Northwestern’s defense wasn’t perfect – the Wildcats allowed some big plays and more than 300 total yards – but there’s not much to complain about when they limit Bowling Green to 7 points and made the play that turned the game around and opened the floodgates for the Wildcats. With Northwestern protecting a 14-7 early in the second quarter, James Morgan completed a nine-yard pass to Datrin Guyton to the NU 37. But Montre Hartage came in and stripped the ball from Guyton, and Godwin Igwebuike picked up the fumble and returned it 45 yards, all the way down to the BG 18-yard line. One play later, Thorson hit Skowronek for an 18-yard touchdown pass and the Wildcats had a 21-7 lead. Bowling Green looked to be on the way to scoring points; instead, the Wildcats got a two-score lead from which they would never look back.
What a night for Dickerson: Often-overlooked Dickerson had a coming out party against Bowling Green. Going into the contest, the senior superback’s career-high was 44 yards for a single game and he had five catches on the season. He obliterated both of those marks by catching a game- and career-high nine passes for 150 yards. For the first time in his career, Dickerson was utilized as a downfield threat, catching two 28-yard passes, as well as a 27-yarder. Dickerson’s emergence as a legitimate weapon in the passing game could give a boost to the Wildcat offense heading into conference play.
The Cats bounce back: As WildcatReport wrote this week, bad early season losses like the debacle at Duke is nothing new for Northwestern. And neither is rebounding from an ugly defeat to salvage the season. The Wildcats lost a non-conference game they weren’t supposed to in six of Fitzgerald’s 11 previous seasons in Evanston; in four of those seasons, Northwestern came back to make a bowl game at the end of the year. Of course, beating an overmatched Bowling Green team doesn’t necessarily mean that this team is suddenly a Big Ten West contender. But it shows that the good team many experts saw before the season may still emerge.