Though it seemed headed towards a blowout loss for most of the first half, Saturday’s homecoming game concluded as arguably the greatest win of the season for the Northwestern Wildcats. On Saturday, the Cardiac ‘Cats pulled off a school-record 25 point comeback to defeat Indiana 29-28.
After trailing from 20 seconds into the first quarter, Northwestern took its first lead of the game with 21 seconds remaining in the game when Stefan Demos hit a 19-yard field goal.
With the little remaining time Indiana attempted to get itself back in field goal range, but a 59 yard field goal try by Nick Freeland fell well short, giving the ‘Cats their fifth win of the season.
The late game heroics of Demos were necessitated because of dismal first half by Northwestern that saw the ‘Cats fall behind 28-3.
“It wasn’t a Picasso, but it’s a win,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The ‘Cats got off to a terrible start. On the first play from scrimmage, Darius Willis broke to the right sideline for a 70-yard touchdown run, very quickly putting Northwestern in a hole.
Indiana extended that lead to 21 by early in the second quarter on touchdown runs by Ben Chappell and Willis.
“I thought we came in prepared, but we sure didn’t execute very well,” said Fitzgerald. “We were just a little out of sync.”
Finally, getting the ‘Cats on the board, Demos knocked in a 28-yard field goal. The relief of breaking the shutout was short-lived, however, as on the ensuing kickoff, Ray Fisher broke free for a 93-yard return for a touchdown.
Brought to the brink of a blowout, Northwestern responded with 26 straight points over the remaining two and half quarters to steal what seemed like a sure win for the Hoosiers.
“After the long touchdown return,” Fitzgerald said, “we started to play as good of football as we’ve played as a team maybe all year.”
After only completing two of eight passes for 14 yards and rushing once for eight yards in the first quarter, Mike Kafka found success with both his arm and his feet, scoring once on the ground and twice through the air.
By halftime, the ‘Cats had cut the deficit to 11 on a run by Kafka and a brilliant eight yard touch pass that found Zeke Markshausen in the back right corner of the end zone with seven seconds left.
During halftime, Corey Wootton, who got his first sack of the season, gave what Scott Concannon described as a “very emotional” speech. That speech certainly seemed to have an effect on the defense, which held Indiana scoreless for the final 37:46 of the game.
That effect was immediately felt in the third quarter when, after the defense forced a punt from the Indiana 23, Ricky Weina, playing for an injured Sherrick McManis, blocked the punt. Though the ‘Cats were unable to recover the fumble, they did tackle Terrance Thomas in the end zone for a safety.
Indiana threatened to rebuild its shrinking lead, getting down to the Northwestern one yard line. However, a tremendous goal line effort forced a turnover on downs when Ben Johnson brought down Mitchell Evans at the two.
In the fourth quarter, the ‘Cats pulled within a field goal on a 51-yard strike from Kafka to Andrew Brewer.
Thanks to the renewed defensive effort of the ‘Cats, Indiana was forced to punt and stopped on another fourth down try, allowing Demos to nail his second game-winning field goal of the year.
Despite the slow start for Kafka, he finished with 377 total yards, including 312 passing, with three touchdowns. Kafka was however picked off three times, all in the second half.
Fitzgerald said that not all of the blame for those interceptions should fall on Kafka, as one interception was caused by “a breakdown in execution between [Kafka] and a receiver,” he said. “Mike gets the interception, but it wasn’t all Mike’s fault.”
Kafka showed continued rapport with Brewer and Markshausen, completing eight passes to each player for 135 and 94 yards, respectively.
Northwestern may have found its new feature back in Concannon, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry for 74 yards.
Concannon showed great agility and was able to evade defenders with quick direction changes, prompting Markshausen to nickname him “Cut-cannon.”