There were three seconds left, and chants of “I-S-U!” rained down upon a Ryan Field crowd that was colored by more red than purple. The ball was snapped and Illinois State kicked a 33-yard field goal right through the uprights as the clock turned to zero. Final: Illinois State 9, Northwestern 7.
This is reality for NU, who after losing 22-21 to Western Michigan in the home opener, have now dropped its second home contest in a row, falling to 0-2 on the season.
It’s difficult to maintain any sense of optimism for the rest of NU’s season, as a once-promising team looks to be in shambles. The Wildcats played an ugly football game on Saturday, and competitive Big Ten teams simply don’t get outplayed by FCS teams.
Junior running back Justin Jackson only had 11 carries for 39 yards, and was pulled late in the game with a lower-body injury. A long-term absence for NU’s best offensive playmaker would be disastrous. NU relied heavily on redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, and he was an inefficient 17-of-41 for 191 yards and a touchdown, as well as rushing 12 times for 43 yards.
The offensive line was dismal for most of the game, unable to get any push in the trenches. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald was shocked and disappointed with the their play, saying, “There’s no way I could have predicted that our offensive line would be as inefficient as they were today.”
Senior offensive lineman Connor Mahoney agreed with Fitzgerald, bluntly stating, “We got our butts kicked up front. We didn’t bring it today.”
The offensive line also had four holding calls, and when Illinois State wasn’t beating them, they were beating themselves. Every time NU started to build a drive, a sack or a penalty or a tackle for loss would cause the offense to stall. The Wildcats only reached the red zone twice all game.
NU did a better job on defense than it did last week, recording three sacks and two interceptions. But Illinois State was still able to expose weak spots, and easily drove down the field to kick a game-winning field goal. Despite the two interceptions, question marks keep piling up in the secondary as senior Matt Harris was called for pass interference three times before sustaining an upper body injury that ruled him out for the rest of the game. Sophomore Alonzo Mayo also got hurt, and NU’s depth in the secondary is now fragile.
Senior Jack Mitchell also missed a key field goal early in the game, further plunging the Wildcats' woes. Almost every aspect of NU’s team is in question after this loss - and that’s not even close to being an overstatement. Senior Austin Carr had seven catches for 73 yards with a touchdown, so the Wildcats have one reliable wide receiver, but that’s really about it.
So where do the ‘Cats go from here? Carr recalled the 2014 season, where after starting 0-2, NU turned it around and won its next three games. Trevor Siemian, the now world-famous, Super Bowl champion, undefeated starting QB of the Denver Broncos, told that ‘Cats team how important it was to stick together. Carr said he would relay his old QB’s message to this team because, let’s face it, it’s NU’s only choice. While everyone around NU has lowered expectations and given up hope, the Wildcats won’t.
Sadly, no matter how resilient NU is, the season could get even uglier. The Wildcats might improve a little on offense or tighten up some aspects of the defense, but it's clear that this NU team is in big trouble. Nobody wants to think about what will happen against Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. And if the Wildcats don't turn around their season quickly, nobody will even want to watch those games. NU's backs are against the wall, and with many of its pre-season goals already out of the question, will be fighting an uphill battle for the rest of the year.