Rutgers returned home for the 85th annual homecoming contest to face an inconsistent Northwestern team. Neither squad was having the season they hoped, but a logjam in the Big Ten West meant that the Wildcats were still in the hunt at 3-1 in conference play. Northwestern was without much experience at the running back spot though. Their healthy running backs coming into the game (freshmen Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson) had just 7 career rushes for 14 yards combined. On the home side, Raheem Blackshear was not on the sideline to begin the game as he was out of town attending services for his grandmother’s recent passing. Rutgers was also without star Tight End Jerome Washington, starting Left Tackle Tariq Cole, short yardage runner Jonathan Hilliman and occasional starter Sam Vretman.
The first play of the game was the second worst thing that could happen on an opening kickoff for the receiving team. Isaih Pacheco, who everyone including me wanted to see more of, signaled for a fair catch at his own one yard line but fumbled the ball. With the new rules this season, that meant Rutgers was forced to start the opening drive at the spot, the one yard line. Rutgers went three and out then punted.
After that, an actual football game was played.
Northwestern responded with an eight play, 43 yard drive for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. It would turn out to be more than 50% of their offensive yardage output for the half. Rutgers’s defense looked uninspired on the opening drive but would rebound quite nicely. They showed some energy, swarming and gang tackling like we haven’t seen all season with Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris returning to form.
After a Rutgers punt put Northwestern back at their own 12, the RU defense forced a quick three and out. The ensuing Wildcat punt could not be fielded by Hunter Hayek and it went for 70 yards, downed at the RU 14. The teams exchanged punts again.
Then on yet another punt, Adam Korsak booted one that went for a school record 79 yards as it rolled deep in Northwestern territory. The complete flip in field position pumped up the sideline and the crowd that continued to fill in. Northwestern avoided catastrophe from their own two yard line, but a short kick set up Rutgers at the Wildcat 37.
Even after a false start to begin the drive, Rutgers got one first down and then converted a 42 yard field goal to cut the deficit to 7-3. Northwestern managed a single first down, but was forced to punt. After an earlier drop, Eddie Lewis redeemed himself with a nice catch and run to convert a third and nine. A five yard run by Trey Sneed who was replacing the injured Jon Hilliman and a first down carry by Isaih Pacheco set up Rutgers with a first down at the Wildcat 44. Isaih Pacheco broke through the line and delivered a long touchdown, the type of play Rutgers has been victimized by all season.
After Pacheco’s huge run, Northwestern was pinned back deep in their own territory. Rutgers capitalized on a tremendous individual effort by Wil Previlon. The defensive line effort was superb on four man rushes for the first time this season epitomized by Previlon dropping Thorson for a safety and a 12-7 Rutgers lead as 1:38 remained in the half.
Right around this time, Blackshear appeared on the sidelines in uniform and seemingly ready for action. The Rutgers offense did move the ball going into half but were victimized by their having to burn a timeout earlier in the half. After Rutgers dodged a bullet on what appeared to be an intentional grounding that was not flagged, a 47 yard field goal try from Justin Davidovicz sailed wide right to send the teams into the locker rooms. Rutgers held a surprising 12-7 lead at intermission.
In the first half, Northwestern had just 84 total yards, 64 of which were through the air. Rutgers had 145, though 44 of those came on Pacheco’s touchdown. RU had 65 passing yards, one more than Northwestern. Rutgers achieved 8 first downs to just 5 for the Wildcats. Neither team turned the ball over, so whichever offense could break out in the second half could probably win. I mentioned to Aaron that Northwestern is the last opponent you want to be in a game like this against since they have a good quarterback and win a lot of these dogfight type of games.
Northwestern received the second half kick, and Justin Davidovicz promptly blasted one out of the end zone for a touchback. Reliable receiver Ben Skowronek was rulled out for the rest of the game, but his replacement drew a pass interference flag on Avery Young on the first play from scrimmage. On the ensuing third down, Rutgers burned their first timeout of the second half. The Wildcats did convert by inches on a pass well defended by Rutgers, but two plays later Clayton Thorson was forced to scramble as RU got pressure with four and fumbled the ball, recovered by Trevor Morris at the Northwestern 46.
With good field position and a rejuvenated Raheem Blackshear, Rutgers was just short of the first down line to gain at the Northwestern 37 but got the conversion on a roughing the passer penalty to move the sticks. Rutgers seemed to have a touchdown, but for the second time in the game Shameen Jones could not shield the defender enough to make a contested catch. Davidovicz buried the chip shot field goal for a 15-7 Scarlet Knight advantage.
After the Wildcats kicked a field goal to cut it to 15-10 on a long methodical drive, Rutgers came out firing on first down. Bo Melton joined Shameen Jones and Eddie Lewis with a wide open drop that would have gone for a first down club. Rutgers flagged for an illegal substitution and quickly punted once again.
The defense got pressure on a third and eight, but Olakunle Fatukasi must not have seen Clayton Thorson slide down and hit him for a late hit to extend the drive. At first glance it looked like the right call, but Fatukasi was already airborne when Thorson slid on the replay setting off the entire stadium. Chris Ash was flagged for a personal foul on sideline when he went bazerk moving the ball past midfield. Rutgers was fired up and got a stop behind the line on first and nearly picked off a tipped ball on second, but Isaiah Wharton was injured on the play giving Northwestern time to draw up a play for 3rd and 13. Decent pressure set up a fourth and three after a check down.
Kevin Wilkins and Wil Previlon collapsed the pocket and one or both of them batted the ball down at the line to force a turnover. After the play, Rutgers got a sideline warning for being excited sending the stadium to another chorus of boos. The score remained RU 15, Northwestern 10 as time ticked away in the third quarter. Rutgers could not convert a third down and was flagged for tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart being ineligible downfield. It was another bizarre penalty as he was ruled an ineligible receiver.
After a punt, Rutgers ended the third quarter with Trevor Morris blowing up a lineman and making a tackle for loss. The inspired play led to cheers as the team switched sides and 15 minutes remained in the game. The teams exchanged punts and Rutgers forced a fourth and one.
Northwestern converted with a shade under 11 minutes left to go in the game. Saquan Hampton made a great play to save a touchdown by batting the ball away, but a huge gain on the ensuing play got Northwestern to the RU 21. Jaohne Duggan almost got a coverage sack, but Thorson got the ball out and was somehow not intercepted by Hampton who seemed to have the ball. Northwestern went for it on 4th and 4.
Despite Mike Tverdov blowing up the right tackle, Thorson fired quickly for the conversion, the type of play a star QB can make. Two plays later Northwestern punched it in to go up 16-15. Rutgers only rushed three and with all the time in the world, Thorson fired one into traffic for a two point conversion. Northwestern now led 18-15 with 8:12 to go.
A false start by Mike Lonsdorf and a drop by Eddie Lewis on third down that may have gotten the conversion forced the fourth straight three and out for Rutgers. 6:30 left to go, NU still leads 18-15.
Rutgers would not get the ball back as they could not stop Northwestern on three straight third downs. Virtually every defensive player had a chance to make a big play on the drive and no one could as they had been on the field almost the entire half. Rutgers is now 1-7 overall and 0-5 in Big Ten play, with only two of those losses being close in the 4th quarter. Northwestern is now 4-3 on the campaign.
The Scarlet Knights have a bye week before returning to action at Wisconsin November 3. Four ranked teams remain in the final four games.