The Northwestern Wildcats survived a deficient passing game for much of last season, relying on their defense to pull a number of close contests out of the fire.
That tendency to live on the edge typically does not sustain itself across multiple seasons. One year can produce a 10-win buffet of blessings, but subsequent seasons usually demand greater precision and heightened competence. Playing the same dangerous game catches up with teams that don’t shore up their weaknesses.
Northwestern now knows that lesson after its first game of the 2016 college football season.
A year ago, Northwestern’s home opener — with the familiar 11 a.m. (Central time) kickoff at Ryan Field — featured a ho-hum offensive performance. However, the Wildcats’ defense roared in a 16-6 win over a shell-shocked Stanford side. NU quarterback Clayton Thorson didn’t play well, but he did just enough to enable his defense to win the game.
A year later, Western Michigan brought much more to the table on offense than Stanford did. Northwestern’s offense wasn’t able to overcome the Broncos’ formidable ball-control attack.
Western Michigan controlled the ball for just over 39 minutes, accumulating more than 400 yards. Quarterback Zach Terrell threw for over 200; running back Jamauri Bogan ran for over 100, and Corey Davis caught 70 yards of passes as a receiver. The Broncos trailed midway through the fourth quarter but engineered a go-ahead touchdown drive with 5:38 left. Western Michigan took a 22-21 advantage.
Northwestern appeared highly likely to take the lead on its next drive, but then Thorson fumbled at the 1. Western Michigan’s Davontae Ginwright recovered the fumble. However, he became panic-stricken. Perhaps thinking he would have suffered a safety had he run out of the end zone with the ball — thereby giving NU a 23-22 lead — Ginwright tossed the ball back into the field of play:
WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS??? pic.twitter.com/zXf6ZFBjpU
— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) September 3, 2016
Replay suggested that the ball was thrown back into the field of play before Ginwright stepped out of bounds, but replay upheld the on-field ruling that Ginwright HAD stepped out of bounds, which meant a touchback for the Broncos. They kept possession and ran out the clock, preserving their tenuous victory.
It’s a milestone win for the Western Michigan program and head coach P.J. Fleck:
— #MACtion (@MACSports) September 3, 2016
It’s just about impossible to imagine Fleck staying at WMU beyond this season. He’s destined for a Power Five coaching job this December.
Meanwhile, after winning 10 games last year, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald absorbed a very difficult loss. This isn’t a conference game, but a team which got crushed by Iowa and Michigan last season needed to show it had become more formidable, to the point that it wouldn’t get enmeshed in more close-shave games. The 2016 Wildcats needed to improve upon their 2015 level of performance in order to maintain their status in the Big Ten. They clearly didn’t achieve that in Week 1. Clayton Thorson made the kind of mistake which can cast a large shadow over a season…
… even though the replay booth appeared to deal Northwestern a very bad break.